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Wednesday, 3 December 2014

NASA's Orion Spacecraft

In honour of its test flight tomorrow, today we take a look at the Orion spacecraft and what its development and test flight will mean for human space exploration.

What is it?

The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or Orion, is a 4-person spacecraft designed to carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit. Originally designed for NASA's Constellation program to return to the Moon, construction of the Orion has continued despite the scrubbing of the Constellation mission. 

Orion capsule with Automated Transfer Vehicle
NASA has been working on the capsule for years and is now ready to test it, in its working environment, i.e. outer space.

Tomorrow, December 4th, 2014, at 7:05 Eastern Time, the capsule will be launched on a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral. The capsule will complete two orbits, go as high as 5800 km before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean 4 hours later.

Why is it important?

The test of any new technology should be considered important unto itself. NASA is moving past the drawing board, beyond the testing chambers, and is now ready to see how its capsule will act in space.

Most importantly, the test flight and the capsule represent the next step in human space exploration. The capsule will fly higher than any human-rated spacecraft has since 1972. It will fly through the Van Allen radiation belts, and it will experience a myriad of environmental and operational conditions which must be tested before a human sets foot in the craft.

NASA has had plans for going to Mars for years. My work this year has been heavily involved in becoming familiar with these plans. These mission architectures have been revised and refined as new technologies, policies, and capabilities are realized. 

NASA tweeted this image the morning of Dec. 2nd, 2014
The Orion capsule is being designed with the purpose of sending humans beyond low-Earth orbit. 

Take note, that sentence above is the single-most defining reason for the Orion's importance. NASA is doing more than drafting documents and mission architectures, they are working on the technology to go to Mars. They're not alone; many groups are looking at Mars, but the Orion, and its flight test, represent significant steps in the direction of the Red Planet.

Humans have never been beyond the orbit of the Moon, and we have barely spent any time outside of the shielding effects of Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field. The longest time a human being has spent in space was 437 days onboard the MIR station, and despite decades of desire, research, and effort, we are not ready to go to Mars.

Sure, we technically could send humans there and back, but we do not yet know enough to do so very safely. There are countless problems with the technology involved, the lack of redundancy, and the deterioration of the human body deep in unprotected space. As you may recall from an earlier post of mine, the radiation issue alone is one which should seriously deter anyone from wanting to go to deep space with today's technology.

That's why we haven't been to Mars yet, but projects like the Orion capsule are working one small step at a time toward getting people into deep-space safely, and the test flight tomorrow is one necessary step to ensuring future deep-space missions will succeed.

How can you get involved?

As I mentioned earlier, the test flight is tomorrow at 7:05 Eastern Time. If you have the ability, watching the launch, catching any of the news coverage, or watching the landing would be good ways to become involved, in a small way.

Other than that, the mission is ongoing. The test flight tomorrow is one small step and there will be others. I suggest checking out the various websites if you're curious for more information. NASA has been creating numerous contests for naming parts of the craft, for creating mission patches, and I am sure there will be more. So other than showing your excitement, if you stay tuned, you may find ways to more creatively contribute to the effort, should you so choose!

NASA Orion Website
Orion Facebook page
Orion Test Flight Facebook page
Orion Twitter page

A detailed look at the Orion Test Flight procedures
NASA's Infographic Assigning Letters of the Alphabet to Orion

Thanks, as always, for reading!

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