Orion’s Brain

NASA’s new space capsule has a mind of its own.

Astronauts Cady Coleman and Rick Arnold step into a mock-up of the Orion crew module at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. (NASA)
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Other design aspects are also fluid. Dutton suggests that the reaction control system, which controls steering and attitude, might move from numerical data to schematics.

“Say you lost all your lateral jets. If you only have tables of numerical data, sure, the information’s there, but a schematic may let you grasp it more quickly,” says Dutton.

Orion’s plumbing too may go graphic, with visual interpretations of data on fuel, water, and coolant system fluids. Electrical information may also convert from numbers to shapes and colors, with icons visually wired together on the display, including the status of the solar arrays and batteries.

There will be far fewer knobs and switches on the instrument panel, but it is impossible to drive them out of Orion entirely. Sometimes the old ways work best. “Hard switches will still have their place in this cockpit,” says Dutton, “but they’ll have to buy their way in based on solid rationale.”

THE ORION MODULE will have a busy career. Not only will the new ship take over the job of ferrying astronauts to the ISS and back four years after the space shuttle retires in 2010, but a single vehicle will be expected to make 10 trips to space, where each Apollo module made just one. Orion will also need the capability to remain in orbit without a crew for up to 210 days.

It is built for this rigorous life. The footprint of the capsule, 16.5 feet in diameter, will easily eclipse that of the Apollo command modules, which at their widest spanned only 12 feet, 10 inches. Orion will also be more than twice as heavy as an Apollo command module.

With 380 cubic feet of habitable volume, Orion looks like a more bulky version of an Apollo craft. But it won’t offer the shuttle’s elbow room, which has about five times the space.
“When you’re in the shuttle, it’s like you’re standing behind Dad in the Winnebago,” says Lee Morin, another member of Ratliff’s cockpit development team. Morin, who participated in the shuttle’s glass cockpit makeover, spent 259 hours in orbit aboard Atlantis as a mission specialist in April 2002: “On the shuttle, you get to look over people’s shoulders. Orion’s more like a diving bell.”
To an Apollo crew of three, though, who were crammed into 220 cubic feet, Orion would feel luxurious. And to a Soyuz crew of three, packed into a gestational 141 cubic feet during launch and reentry, it may be considered extravagant. Orbital flights, during which
Orion will have six occupants, could prove…intimate.

The spacecraft will consist of four elements. At the very top will sit the launch abort system, an Apollo-era solution to a worst-case scenario. A thin but powerful rocket with angled nozzles, the abort system would jerk the crew module away from a malfunctioning booster like a cork on a string. In their reclined posture, the astronauts could handle the brief 15-G load.

The crew module, the second element, will carry up to six astronauts to the space station, or four to the moon. It could also work as an unmanned cargo hauler. The design and number of thrusters for the reaction control system are still under analysis; engineers are considering two dozen 100-pound thrusters.

The service module will house a large orbital maneuvering system engine plus, possibly, more reaction control system thrusters. The module would also store electrical equipment and various fluids. It will be the only element that remains attached to the crew module throughout the mission, and will be jettisoned just prior to reentry. Finally, a fairing will connect Orion to the booster stack.

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