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Meet Orion, a son-of-Apollo space capsule that, like the family wagon, will be comfortable on long trips and will still be around when the kids learn to drive. (Paul Dimare)

America’s Next Spaceship

Designed to go where no man has gone before.

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“This is all the space for you and your three closest friends,” says Brad Holcomb, a project manager at Lockheed Martin’s Exploration Development Laboratory in Houston, as I settle into the commander’s seat on the low-fidelity mockup of the Orion capsule. Having clambered my six-foot-three-inch frame down through the hatch opening (an isosceles trapezoid, with black-and-yellow caution tape along the top so visitors don’t smack their heads), grabbed a handy yellow strap as I reclined, and swung my legs into a flexed, upright position, I couldn’t imagine working, or driving anything. However normal this position may seem in space, here it felt unsettling.Holcomb is in the same position in a seat a few feet away. Speaking with him—the first interview I have ever conducted on my back—I cannot shake the feeling you get when you climb into a new car with a salesman: resting your hands on the wheel, puzzling out the unfamiliar dashboard, shifting your lumbar region against leather. In this case, however, the seats are severely unaccommodating machined aluminum (the operational version will be upholstered); the windows, shaped roughly like a pair of Aviator shades turned upside down, are above my head; and do not go looking for any cup-holders—though there are other nifty features, like space-saving foldaway seats. While not what you would call expansive, Orion is roomier than the three-astronaut Apollo command modules were. Like a third row seat added to a minivan, the extra 135 cubic feet of habitable volume in Orion is enough to carry a fourth astronaut. In this “mid-fidelity” mockup, the interior is white and spare, and rather than a complicated instrument panel with a hundred switches poking out of it, the cockpit will feature three touchscreens, placed at eye level.

Orion spent years in a high-flying theoretical orbit, and has so far survived the punishing turbulence of reentry into fiscal realities and shifting political desires. In 2006, NASA awarded Lockheed Martin Space Systems $6.1 billion to build spacecraft for the far-ranging Constellation program of human exploration. After the program’s cancellation, Lockheed Martin began work on a contract, extended to 2020, to build spacecraft for three missions. The first flightworthy capsule is being readied (in June, technicians at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center mated the crew and service modules) for its uncrewed 3,600-mile ride this December, after its launch atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. Orion is the heart of NASA’s most ambitious crewed vehicle ever, a vessel that will carry the human space program for the next 30 years and could see everything from lunar exploration to a variety of still-unfolding asteroid recovery missions to, eventually, it is hoped, a mission to Mars.

Not that astronauts would be expected to log that flight in the Orion command module; for a Mars voyage, a larger habitation module would be attached. There is even talk of having habitation modules stocked with supplies and waiting in space at crucial junctures, like highway rest stops.

Car metaphors may be trite, but while I walk around Lockheed’s laboratory, in a sprawling office park not far from the Johnson Space Center, they keep coming up. (And after all, Lockheed designers did get advice on the capsule’s seat-restraint systems from seat designers for NASCAR.) To explain the difference between a spacecraft designed for a Mars mission and one for low Earth orbit, for example, Linda Singleton, Lockheed’s Orion program integration manager, reaches for the RV comparison: “If you have a car and an RV, you’re not going to run to the grocery store in your RV to get milk,” she says. By contrast, sleeping in the “car” might be acceptable for a one-week jaunt to the moon, but for a nine-month Martian road trip you will want some of the creature comforts of a Winnebago (i.e., a habitation module). Of the spacecraft being developed by companies NASA has hired to ferry people and things to the International Space Station, she says “we kind of call them taxis.” As opposed to the 20,000-mph, 4,000-degree, 12-G reentry that Orion will eventually experience from a deep space jaunt, “the low Earth orbit is a Sunday drive,” Holcomb notes. As we walk around the capsule exterior, I point out to the Lockheed team that, as with the anthropomorphic headlights and grills of most car designs, the front of Orion has a “face.” Purely unintentional, they tell me. Squint a bit and you almost see a less-threatening version of a stormtrooper helmet from Star Wars.

In a mockup at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, astronauts Rick Linnehan and Mike Foreman assume launch position. (NASA)
In the Gemini 7 cockpit, the instrument panel was dominated by switches, dials, and knobs. ( NASA)
The cockpit of the space shuttle Endeavour, with nine LCD displays, was much more complex than Orion’s cockpit is expected to be. (AP/John Raoux)
Astronauts in Orion’s cockpit will monitor its systems through touch screens and fly with a hand controller. NASA expects four astronauts to be comfortable for up to three weeks in the 353 habitable cubic feet of the crew module. (Courtesy DISTI)
At the capsule’s base, between heatshield and cockpit, is a storage area for consumables and research gear. (NASA)
At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, a tech examines Orion’s thermal protection tiles, fabricated and numbered for placement, just as shuttle tiles were. (NASA/Dmitri Gerondidakis)
Heat shield material is tested at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. (NASA / Sean Smith)
Beneath its Nextel and Kevlar skin, Orion is constructed of the same aluminum-lithium alloy used for the space shuttle’s external tank. (Lockheed Martin )
Shoved from a Boeing C-17 over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, Orion passed its parachute test: It landed in good shape despite deploying only two of the available three chutes. (NASA)
Workers stack a model of the launch abort system at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range. (NASA JSC)
In 2010, the real thing rocketed up—and down—as planned, auguring in up to its adaptor cone, while its cargo parachuted to safety. (US Army White Sands Missile Range)
Instead of the helicopters and aircraft carriers that retrieved Apollo capsules and astronauts, a Navy well deck ship will locate each returning Orion and tow it, with astronauts inside, into its spacious hangar. (US Navy/Scott Barnes)
With seven astronaut escorts waving at the reviewing stand during the 2013 inaugural celebration, America’s next spacecraft parades by America’s 44th president. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The last time humans left Earth orbit, cars ran on leaded gas, few models had power steering, in-car entertainment was an AM radio, cruise control was a novelty, and air bags were unheard of. So how has something as representative of the Space Age as a space capsule changed in that time? As NASA prepares to launch a vehicle that someday, according to the agency’s “road map,” will go farther into space than any before it, I wanted to look under the hood of this new-model capsule and understand how the agency has designed for distance.


If you were around for Apollo, you’ll recognize Orion. Its conical form comes deep out of Apollo aerodynamic studies and tapers from its base to its lopped-off apex with a barely perceptible 2.5-degree change in the angle that defined the Apollo capsules. When Cleon Lacefield, Lockheed vice president and Orion’s program manager (a former NASA flight director in the space shuttle program), tells me Orion is using the same Avcoat-clad heat shield as Apollo (besting some eight rival materials), I ask how much the 1960s material has evolved. “Not much!” he says, adding that the heat shield is a testament to the engineering ingenuity of the Apollo program. In addition, he notes, since Orion designers were trying to take so many things to the next level, “where we didn’t have to take something to the next level, we tried not to.” Still, Lacefield points out, a “lot of work” was done to improve Avcoat’s thermal properties and strength so that it will withstand the higher reentry loads Orion will experience.

Like the honeycombed Avcoat surface, the resemblance between Apollo and Orion is skin deep. Josh Hopkins is a Lockheed Martin engineer who leads a team designing the concepts for missions that Orion will some day fly. He says that while some may have wanted a next-generation crewed spacecraft to look more next-generation, another mindset is “Hey, the Apollo design worked, and physics hasn’t changed in that time, so let’s start with that approach.”

There are obvious differences: Orion is 30 percent larger in diameter to accommodate longer missions. Internally, says Hopkins, “you have twice the volume. There’s room to put things like a toilet. On Apollo, they had plastic bags. On a two-week trip that could be tiresome.”

Just as the most dramatic changes made in automobiles since the 1960s have been in passenger safety, one of the most significant areas of design evolution in Orion is crew safety. Much of the increased hardness (and weight) of the capsule, says Lacefield, is due to the requirement to make the craft able to withstand a launch failure. Orion, in the event of catastrophe on the launch pad, is rocketed away from its launcher and can be lifted “a mile up and a mile over,” says Lacefield, before it descends under a parachute. That abort system comes with a weight penalty—some 16,000 pounds, more than half the weight of the 22,000-pound crew capsule itself. The burden of weight—“Every pound you add in the weight means several pounds of fuel to get it up,” Lacefield says—is the reason designers scrapped the early idea of a terrestrial landing system, which would have required more cushioning to keep from crushing the humans inside—about 1,400 pounds more—than a water landing system. And yet because of Orion’s deeper journey, and its potentially rougher return ride, bulk had to be added nonetheless. On the space shuttle, Hopkins says, the “decision to deorbit would be made about an hour before landing, so they could essentially check the weather at the landing site.” But on a lunar mission, “you make a commitment to come home about four days before you actually land.” With cooperative weather a probability at best, “you have to be able to tolerate a wider range of weather conditions on landing.” Higher wave heights, for example, can make the landing more troublesome. “When the spacecraft comes down and touches the water, what it really wants to do is come in at an angle,” Hopkins says. “It doesn’t want to belly flop.” But higher waves make it harder for the capsule to make that slicing racing dive; imagine waterskiing across the wake of the boat’s waves versus calm water. Although engineers removed, through various iterations of the design, upward of 1,000 pounds from the Orion heat shield, the one place where structure was added was the part of the capsule that would land in the ocean “feet first” (the astronauts’ feet, that is).

On a deeper, longer mission, there are more chances for things to go wrong, more exposure to radiation and micrometeorites. Says Hopkins, “People on the ground, or astronauts on the space station, are protected from solar storms or galactic cosmic rays to some extent by the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field.” If a spacecraft is to push beyond that field, it will need more protection. This entails everything from better data (from high-powered computing) on where cosmic rays are penetrating a spacecraft to better sensors monitoring the radiation environment. “If it gets bad,” Hopkins says, “the astronauts can move some of the cargo around inside the spacecraft to create a ‘storm shelter’ in the spacecraft, a little bit like kids building a fort out of couch cushions.” Water, stored food, spacesuits—almost any supplies could be used. They help eliminate the need for (and the weight of) material with the single purpose of shielding the ship from radiation. (The service module structure is a radiation buffer on the ship’s blunt end.)

It’s not just astronauts that need shielding: Modern avionics, says Hopkins, have smaller circuits and are thus more vulnerable to radiation. “In modern electronics, as everything has gotten smaller and everything is closer together, there’s a smaller amount of electric current required to flip the switches in the circuit. It used to be that getting hit with a stray particle of radiation wouldn’t have had enough energy to damage big wires and vacuum tubes,” he says. “As things get smaller, it’s easier to flip a bit from a zero to a one or to damage the electrical circuitry. That’s one reason that spacecraft might not use the latest and greatest computer chips like your iPad might use.” So shielding and redundancy have been added.

Going long, the astronauts will depend on the Deep Space Network for communication and must be more self-reliant; there are fewer chances for help. “On [the space station] or shuttle,” says Hopkins, “if something goes wrong [like a sick astronaut], you have the option to come home pretty quickly.” So the Orion design includes many levels of redundancies and “down modes,” says Lockheed’s Lacefield. “We could lose [Orion’s main engine] on the other side of the moon,” he says, holding a model of the Orion and its Space Launch System rocket, “have a problem with our primary avionics, and have a hole in the cabin and still get the crew back.” Things learned with Apollo are reflected here: For example, because of the fire hazard of an all-oxygen cabin, the astronauts will breathe a mixture of gases, even in flight. The carbon dioxide “scrubbers,” whose pending failure was famously depicted in the film Apollo 13, have been replaced, Hopkins says, with a new system that can absorb carbon dioxide and release it later. When the reusable absorber becomes saturated, the astronauts will open a vent and the CO2 will be released overboard. This technology for keeping the air breathable has no time limit, and without it, humans would be restricted to short stays in space.

When the space shuttle was being designed, its creators believed that it would always operate as a pressurized vessel. Only after the Challenger disaster were the astronauts given full-pressure suits to wear during launch and reentry, and although switches and controls had been designed for spacegloved hands to manipulate, the astronauts had difficulty with them when their suits were pressurized. During the Columbia accident investigation, NASA determined that three astronauts weren’t wearing their gloves and one was not wearing a helmet.

About Tom Vanderbilt

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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