NASA Orion update: “The goal is Mars, and the moons of Mars, while the stated goals in between are asteroids.”

We chat about NASA’s next great spacecraft, Orion, with the assistant manager for strategy integration on the programme, Paul Marshall.


2013 is set to be a busy year for development on the Orion spacecraft.

We spoke to NASA’s assistant manager for strategy integration on the Orion spacecraft, Paul Marshall, about what we can expect to see in 2013 and beyond.

What will Orion be doing this year?

We’re focusing heavily on our first orbital flight test beyond LEO [on top of a Delta IV rocket] in 2014. And that’s really our main focus for this coming year. But to make sense of it you kinda have to jump back a step or two and then understand that we’ve been developing Orion as the exploration spacecraft for Solar System destinations for a number of years now.

You guys had a big change not so long ago when Constellation was scrapped.

Yeah, we had a big change in 2010 when the nation decided to make some changes to the policies, but we continued development in a different way. In that timeframe we focused and channeled all our resources really to focusing on maturing the critical systems of this exploration spacecraft.

So what’s happening with the first flight in 2014?

This flight test is an unmanned test. It’s a two-orbit but very high apogee orbit that gets us a little over 3,000 miles out. It gives us a high-energy return to demonstrate especially the thermal protection system, the heat shield, the tiles on the back shell and other things.

How developed will the spacecraft be?

To do even a flight test we have to develop half of the software that we ultimately will have for the crewed spacecraft that we’ll have later in the decade. So we have to have a pretty high level of maturity on the software, on the avionics system, the power system, and other things. What it lacks are things that are specific to the crew like life support, and seats, and computer displays, and things like that.

Testing on Orion is already well underway.

How far through development are you?

We’re well into development of that spacecraft, and we have the primary structure for the crew module fully manufactured at this point. As we get into the spring months we’ll be doing what we call a power on test.

That’s our development goal, to be complete and ready for a launch this year, even though the formal launch stage isn’t until September 2014. Our development plan is to be as close to completed on the spacecraft as we can pretty much this time next year.

By the end of 2013 you want to be flight ready?

That’s correct, flight ready to go with the crew module and then the service module. But yeah, we should be done about this time next year, and a lot of people will think that’s odd that we’re done so far before the launch, but we’re kind of constrained on the launch vehicle availability. And the number one thing is we’re under a lot of pressure to get the next flight after this one done. So this is a strategy that allows us to get to our first integrated test with the big Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in 2017. And it’s important in order to keep resources flowing in the right direction its important that we finish this spacecraft this coming year.

And the next launch is in 2017?

2017 is the next integrated launch after EFT-1, yes.

How does Orion compare to Soyuz and Shenzhou? How is Orion unique?

Orion and Soyuz will be considerably different.

Well we’re designing beyond LEO exploration missions, so we’re weight-optimised in ways that LEO spacecraft are not. We have a more capable heat shield that enables those missions, it’s larger and enables a number of crew with enough habitable volume that we can do some exploration missions that you know have long durations.

I’m not an expert in Soyuz, and certainly not in Shenzhou, although it’s hard to mistake the similarities at least on the outside between Shenzhou and Soyuz, so my guess is there are a lot of similarities. It’s a very cramped system but it’s more than adequate for short duration transits, for example to and from space stations, which we’re making great use of right now in partnership with the Russians.

Is everything on track for missions to asteroids and Mars in the 2020s?

Yes, our budgets are supporting that. So we’re at the part of the spacecraft development that’s hard and messy, you know building the spacecraft for the first time, going through the process of tooling up the industry, exercising all the formal design drawings for the first time, so we’re going through that part of the process. EFT-1 in 2014 gives us plenty of learning time to 2017 and 2021. So on the spacecraft side, we believe we’re making the right progress.

What do you make of the progress with the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket?

Development of the Space Launch System is imperative for Orion to complete its goals, says Paul.

I’ve been very impressed with how quickly the SLS rocket development is progressing, they’re just now starting they’re preliminary design review process and they’ll finish it in the middle months of 2013, which is an important part of what we expect this coming year.

Could a different launch vehicle be used if SLS is not finished?

So Orion is not able to do any of these [deep space] exploration missions without the SLS launch rocket. Conceptionally and conceivably can you do other things? Yes, but that’s not our mission.

Not even a large rocket like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy?

If I understand the Falcon Heavy, while it is larger lets say than the Delta IV Heavy, it’s not large enough to replace the performance capability of the SLS to do these missions. Could it do other things? Probably so. But that’s how we understand it today. The Falcon Heavy design doesn’t meet even the low performance class of the initial SLS system. For these beyond LEO exploration missions we’ll have to fly an SLS.

So, what are the main mission goals for Orion?

Our first two integrated flights with SLS are involved either in swings around the Moon or orbiting the Moon. Lunar orbits, cis-lunar, near-lunar, Earth-moon system locations like Lagrange points and things, those are all in the mix.

Orion will take humans to Mars for the very first time.

The goal is Mars, and the moons of Mars, while the stated goals in between are asteroids. But we’re having a lot of discussions both internally and externally with international partners and others about potential missions that are working towards exploiting lunar orbit and near-lunar destinations like Lagrange points. This could include learning how to operate in Lagrange points, such as understanding what the advantages are in interacting with any robotics on the surface, which are the kinds of things you would do from Martian moons working with robotic Mars surface activities in maybe some of our early visits to Mars. If in fact we choose not to go all the way to the Mars surface, getting to and from Mars moons is a heck of a lot easier obviously from an energy standpoint.

That’s a lot of words to simply say yes, we are planning those things. We’re not in a position to do surface missions on the Moon until other exploration elements, namely landers, come in to the exploration infrastructure. Of course those are the kinds of things that are planned in the 2020s as we expand our mission capabilities.

Talking of landers, is there a planned replacement for the Altair Lunar Lander that was scrapped along with the Constellation programme?

Right, yeah, Altair was something in Constellation. Constellation had all the transportation elements and we were well in to the early development stages of some of these other capabilities that gave us surface operation capabilities, so yeah we had a lunar lander, that’s one of the things that was suspended when Constellation was cancelled.

The Altair Lunar Lander was scrapped in 2010.

A replacement is not yet being discussed, really. And it’s certainly not in any of our budget planning in the overall exploration budget. But what I can tell you is we see a lot of discussion about those other exploration elements in the international planning forums that we see with ESA, and the Japanese and the Canadians and the ISS partnership and the Russians obviously, so there’s a lot in the policy that says we will look long and hard to see if those other exploration elements can be provided by the partnership even before we start some of those early investments ourselves.

So we’ll be seeing more partnerships with private companies and other national space agencies?

That’s certainly a possibility. One of the things we’ll see in 2013 quite frankly is a lot more discussion in those regards. As an agency we’re trying very hard to widen our aperture on looking at lots of acquisition approaches to the overall exploration infrastructure.

Finally, there have been a lot of rumours about a manned gateway spacecraft outpost placed just beyond the Moon. Is this something being seriously considered?

Orion will be able to take astronauts to the vicinity of the Moon for the first time since the Apollo missions.

There’s a whole spectrum of missions that are being looked at. Looking at how we can operate with the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2 and interacting with systems that we might place in L2 is certainly one of the things that are being looked at. There are a lot of constraints, not the least of which is dollars, but the agency is looking at that and several other ways to then start using this transportation capability that we’re developing through Orion, SLS and the ground systems.

And that’s an example of how the agency is looking to the international partnership and even, if you will, existing hardware elements that come out of space stations and seeing how we use those kinds of things. It’s a multilateral discussion that is very much something that is being looked at but it’s far from being approved and committed to by the international community.

All images courtesy of NASA/Lockheed Martin

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