Orion is NASA’s new spacecraft, built to take humans farther into space than they’ve ever gone before. It will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew and provide a safe return to Earth. Having completed its first successful flight test in December 2014, Orion's next milestone will be a flight beyond the orbit of the moon.
On Dec. 5, 2014, Orion launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 37.
Loaded with almost 1,200 sensors, Orion completed a two-orbit, 4.5-hour flight to test many of the systems most critical to safety before it carries astronauts.
Orion will launch on NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System. More powerful than any other rocket ever built, SLS will be capable of sending humans to an asteroid and eventually to Mars.
NASA is using new technology and lessons learned from earlier missions to build the new spacecraft. Orion will carry up to six astronauts compared with Apollo's three, and a new version of the Apollo heat shield will keep the astronauts safe as the crew module re-enters Earth's atmosphere when it returns from deep space.
Orion will use more modern technology in many other areas, such as computers, electronics, life support and propulsion.
Orion's 970 outer tiles are made of the same material as the tiles that protected the shuttle.
The European service module on Orion's second flight will use refurbished engines from the shuttle program.
The crew seats that will fly on future missions will incorporate advances from the shuttle program to reduce mass but still protect the crew.
The human Journey to Mars begins some 250 miles overhead, as astronauts aboard the International Space Station are working off the Earth for the Earth. The space station's microgravity environment makes research possible that can't be achieved on Earth, leading to breakthroughs in understanding Earth, space and physical and biological sciences, including how future crews can thrive on longer missions, including round-trip journeys to an asteroid and Mars.
The space station also is a test bed for exploration technologies like autonomous refueling of spacecraft, advanced life support systems and human/robotic interfaces. A portion of the space station has been designated a national laboratory, and NASA is committed to using this unique resource for wide-ranging scientific research. A new generation of U.S. commercial spacecraft and rockets are supplying cargo to the space station and will soon launch astronauts once again from U.S. soil.
A fleet of robotic spacecraft and rovers already are on and around Mars, dramatically increasing our knowledge about the Red Planet and paving the way for future human explorers. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover measured radiation on the way to Mars and is sending back radiation data from the surface. This data will help us plan how to protect the astronauts who will explore Mars. Future missions like the Mars 2020 rover, seeking signs of past life, also will demonstrate new technologies that could help astronauts survive on Mars.
NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, is an advanced launch vehicle for a new era of exploration beyond Earth’s orbit into deep space. SLS will launch astronauts in Orion on missions to an asteroid and eventually to Mars, while opening new possibilities for other payloads including robotic scientific missions to places like Mars, Saturn and Jupiter.
Offering the highest-ever payload mass and volume capability and energy to speed missions through space, SLS will be the most powerful rocket in history.
NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and robotic and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. Its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth's, helping us learn more about our own planet’s history and future. Mars had conditions suitable for life in its past. Future exploration could uncover evidence of life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth?
Before we can send astronauts into space on Orion, we have to test all of its systems. There’s only one way to know if we got it right: Fly it in space.
For Orion’s first flight, no astronauts are aboard. The spacecraft is loaded with sensors to record and measure all aspects of the flight in every detail.
It all begins with the launch aboard a Delta IV Heavy rocket. As it punches into Earth orbit, Orion separates from its protective fairing (above), then jettisons its Launch Abort System. On future missions the Launch Abort System can pull Orion and its crew out of danger if there is a problem with the rocket during ascent.
After Orion completes one orbit of the Earth, the upper stage of the rocket fires again to start Orion on a climb to more than 3,600 miles above Earth. It passes through the Van Allen Belts, an area of dangerous radiation. Orion's shielding is put to the test as the vehicle cuts through the waves of radiation.
The upper stage of the rocket triggers separation. Orion's jets fire to turn it into the proper position to re-enter Earth's atmosphere. At 75 miles above Earth, Orion travels at more than 20,000 mph.
As Orion pushes air particles out of its way, those particles heat up. Temperatures around the vehicle reach 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This may be the most dangerous part of the flight. During re-entry, Orion is in a fireball. Onboard systems ignite jets to keep the ship pointed correctly so that a specially constructed shield takes the full brunt of the inferno.
After re-entry, it is time for Orion to slow down. Even though its speed has dropped to about 300 miles per hour, that is still too fast to land safely in the ocean. Orion has specially designed parachutes to help slow the spacecraft down to a gentle pace, keeping things comfortable for a future crew.
The bulkhead and nosecone of the Orion spacecraft were joined using friction stir welding at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Nondestructive evaluations validated the strength and integrity of the weld before the spacecraft was prepped for ground testing in flight-like environments, including static vibration, acoustics and water landing tests.
Orion may resemble its Apollo-era predecessors, but its technology and capability are light years apart. Orion features dozens of technology advancements and innovations that have been incorporated into the spacecraft's subsystem and component design.
Technicians position microphones around the Orion and launch abort system test articles in preparation for the second round of testing in the acoustic chamber.
An 18,000-pound Orion mockup was dropped dozens of times into the Hydro Impact Basin at NASA’s Langley Research Center, allowing engineers to better understand the conditions the spacecraft may encounter when landing in the Pacific Ocean.
NASA, Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Navy used the test version of Orion to practice for recovery of the capsule on its return from a deep space mission.
The world’s largest heat shield, measuring 16.5 feet in diameter, has been successfully attached to the Orion spacecraft.
Technicians and engineers at Kennedy Space Center put the finishing touches on the crew module that will fly in December on Orion's first spaceflight.
A special test version of Orion was dropped at the Yuma Army proving grounds in Arizona to test the parachute system.