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What Is Orion? (Grades K-4)

This article is for students grades K-4.

Orion /o-rie-un/ is a new NASA spacecraft. Orion is an important part of the Artemis missions. Artemis is NASA’s plan to explore more of the Moon. Artemis will send the first woman and first person of color to work on the Moon. Astronauts will travel on Orion from Earth. They will go the Gateway spaceship that will fly around and around the Moon. From the Gateway, they will catch a ride to land on the Moon.

Illustration of the Orion spacecraft flying back to Earth

What Will Orion Do?

Orion will take astronauts farther than they have ever gone. Orion will do many things:

  • Carry the astronauts safely to space. 
  • Be a home while the astronauts through space.
  • Bring the astronauts back to Earth safely from space.
  • Be a “lifeboat” if the crew has to return to Earth in an emergency.

Orion will launch on a new rocket. The rocket is the Space Launch System. It is called SLS for short.

How Is Orion Made?

Orion will ride on top of the SLS. Orion is made so that its weight is as light as it can be. This means the SLS will not need to use so much fuel to launch and has room for other tools and things. Orion is made to be the safest transportation to carry four astronauts to the Moon or farther. It has everything they will need to live and work in space for up to 21 days per mission.

Orion has three main parts:

  1. The launch abort system is at the top. This part is also called the LAS. It will work if there is an emergency during launch. The LAS will start to work in less than one second to pull the crew module where the astronauts sit away from the rest of the rocket.
  2. The crew module is in the middle. This is the part where up to four astronauts can sit and live while they travel through space.
  3. The service module is at the bottom. This part has important things like air and water for the astronauts. Orion will use energy from the Sun. This power is called solar energy. Orion has solar panels that open like the letter X outside of the service module after it is safely in space. These panels absorb sunlight and turn it into electricity.
Artist's drawing of the three main sections of Orion

How is NASA Testing Orion?

Before a spacecraft flies on a mission, NASA must test it. NASA must be sure the spacecraft works well and is safe. Orion had its first flight test in 2014. It launched from Florida on a rocket called a Delta IV Heavy. (The IV is the Roman numeral for 4.) No people rode on Orion during this test. The spacecraft flew around Earth two times. Then, the spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near California. NASA tested the LAS with no astronauts. The LAS passed!

What’s Next for Orion?

Orion’s next test will be part of Artemis I. (I is the Roman numeral for 1.) Orion will launch on the SLS rocket for the first time. No people will fly on this test. Orion will launch from Florida. After Orion is safely in space, the rocket will fall away from Orion. The spacecraft will keep going and fly past and around the Moon. Orion will return to Earth and splash down in the ocean. This trip will take about three weeks. Orion will travel more than one million miles total. NASA will check Orion to see if everything worked well. Then, Orion will be ready for astronauts.

The next mission will be Artemis II. (II is the Roman numeral for 2.) Orion will fly past the Moon like Artemis I. This mission will have astronauts. It will last about 10 days. The flight will be the farthest people have ever traveled into space.

Artemis III will take astronauts to the Gateway. (III is the Roman numeral for 3.) From there, the crew will go to the Moon and study its South Pole. After the mission, the crew will come home in Orion.

More About Orion

Orion for Kids
Orion A to Z Coloring Book (PDF)
Story: What Is the Space Launch System?
What Is the Artemis Program?

Read What Is Orion? (Grades 5-8)