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The Orion spacecraft will have more volume than the Apollo capsules, reducing development time, boosting stability, and permitting safe travel for up to six crewmembers.

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America will send a new generation of explorers to the moon aboard NASA’s Orion crew exploration vehicle. Making its first flights early in the next decade, Orion is part of the Constellation Program to send human explorers back to the moon, and then onward to Mars and other destinations in the solar system.

orion orbiting the moon

Orion orbits the moon with disc-shaped solar arrays tracking the sun to generate electricity. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin Corp.

A component of the Vision for Space Exploration, Orion’s development is taking place in parallel with missions to complete the International Space Station using the space shuttle before the shuttle is retired in 2010.

Orion will be capable of carrying crew and cargo to the space station. It will be able to rendezvous with a lunar landing module and an Earth departure stage in low-Earth orbit to carry crews to the moon and, one day, to Mars-bound vehicles assembled in low-Earth orbit. Orion will be the Earth entry vehicle for lunar and Mars returns. Orion’s design will borrow its shape from the capsules of the past, but takes advantage of 21st century technology in computers, electronics, life support, propulsion and heat protection systems.

Lockheed Martin Corp was awarded the contract to build Orion on Aug. 31, 2006.

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Briefing Materials: > Slides (700 Kb PDF) | > Handout (712 Kb PDF)

Veteran Shape, State-of-the Art Technology
Orion will be similar in shape to the Apollo spacecraft, but significantly larger. The Apollo-style heat shield is the best understood shape for re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, especially when returning directly from the moon. Orion will be 5 meters (16.5 feet) in diameter and have a mass of about 22.7 metric tons (25 tons). Inside, it will have more than two-and-a-half times the volume of an Apollo capsule.

exploded internal view of the cev

Exploded view of Orion. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin Corp.

The larger size will allow Orion to accommodate four crew members on missions to the moon, and six on missions to the International Space Station or Mars-bound spacecraft. Orion is scheduled to fly its first missions to the space station by 2014 and carry out its first sortie to the moon by 2020.

A launch abort system atop the Orion capsule will be capable of pulling the spacecraft and its crew to safety in the event of an emergency on the launch pad or at any time during ascent.

Journey to the Moon
For missions to the moon, NASA will use two separate launch vehicles, each derived from a mixture of systems with heritage rooted in Apollo, space shuttle and commercial launch vehicle technology.

An Ares V cargo launch vehicle will precede the launch of the crew vehicle, delivering to low-Earth orbit the Earth departure stage and the lunar module that will carry explorers on the last leg of the journey to the moon’s surface. Orion will dock with the lunar module in Earth orbit, and the Earth departure stage will propel both on their journey to the moon. Once in lunar orbit, all four astronauts will use the lunar landing craft to travel to the moon’s surface, while the Orion spacecraft stays in lunar orbit. Once the astronauts’ lunar mission is complete, they will return to the orbiting Orion vehicle using a lunar ascent module. The crew will use the service module main engine to break out of lunar orbit and head to Earth.

Orion and its crew will reenter Earth’s atmosphere using a newly developed thermal protection system. Parachutes will further slow Orion’s descent through the atmosphere.

More Information:

> Fact Sheet (PDF 1.5 Mb)
> Full Resolution Images


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Last Updated: June 15, 2011
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