Orion: Spacecraft to Take Astronauts Beyond Earth Orbit
The Orion spacecraft stands ready for mounting atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 37 on Nov. 12, 2014.
Credit: NASA

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is NASA's planned spacecraft to take astronauts into space beyond Earth orbit. The agency launched the first test flight of the spacecraft in December 2014, with crewed missions possibly following in the early 2020s.

Similar in shape to the Apollo spacecraft, Orion is supposed to carry up to six astronauts to destinations such as a captured asteroid or within reach of Mars. But this will be an upgrade to Apollo, with the newer, and much larger, spacecraft sporting electronics decades more advanced than what astronauts used to fly to the moon.

Orion will fly in tandem with NASA's planned Space Launch System, a next-generation booster designed to bring astronauts out of low-Earth orbit again. Orion's first test flight, however, used a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the spacecraft. The company began work on the spacecraft in 2004 during a competition for the contract, which was valued at up to $8.15 billion upon award in August 2006.

Orion, however, was originally built for NASA's Constellation program that was intended to bring humans to the moon and to Mars. That program was canceled in 2010 after President Barack Obama said that NASA should adopt a more "flexible destination" approach to space exploration.

NASA had already spent $5 billion on developing Orion at that point, and Lockheed had been working on the spacecraft for about six years (including the competition.) In early 2011, however, NASA hinted that the Orion spacecraft could be "repurposed." The agency followed that up in May with a plan for the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle — one that was reasonably close to the predecessor Orion spacecraft design, but could still be used for the new mandate.

"We made this choice based on the progress that's been made to date," Doug Cooke, associate administrator for NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., said to reporters on May 24, 2011. "It made the most sense to stick with it (the Orion design)." [The Orion Capsule: NASA's Next Spaceship (Photos)]

NASA's Orion spacecraft boasts the world's largest heat shield at 16.5 feet (5 meters) in diameter. Image uploaded June 5, 2014.
NASA's Orion spacecraft boasts the world's largest heat shield at 16.5 feet (5 meters) in diameter. Image uploaded June 5, 2014.
Credit: NASA

Orion can hold between two and six astronauts and is designed to launch on NASA's next-generation Space Launch System rocket, which is supposed to have its first test flight in 2017 or 2018.

The gumdrop-shaped capsule and the service module together are about 26 feet (8 meters) long with a diameter of 16.5 feet (5 m). The spacecraft's habitable volume is just 316 cubic feet (8.95 cubic meters), which is about 1.5 times larger than the Apollo spacecraft.

Orion's crew module is just one of five components of the spacecraft. Orion also contains a launch abort system to pull astronauts away from the spacecraft with escape rockets should something go wrong during launch.

The service module, built by the European Space Agency, contains solar panels for electricity, oxygen for breathing and rocket engines to propel the spacecraft. Orion also includes a spacecraft adapter (which shields the service module during launch) and an instrument unit that includes the guidance and control system for the booster. [Infographic: Orion Explained: NASA's Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle]

A test version of NASA’s Orion spacecraft touches down in the Arizona desert after its most complicated parachute test to date.
A test version of NASA’s Orion spacecraft touches down in the Arizona desert after its most complicated parachute test to date.
Credit: NASA

Orion's first uncrewed test flight, known as Exploration Flight Test-1, or EFT-1, launched on Dec. 5, 2014. This test flight marked the first time a spacecraft built for humans has flown outside low-Earth orbit in more than 40 years, since the last mission of the Apollo program in 1972.

The space capsule seemed to perform nearly flawlessly during its 4.5-hour test flight, NASA officials said. Orion soared 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometers) above Earth before turning around for a high-speed re-entry. The parachutes and huge heat shield on Orion seemed to work well during flight. [See photos from Orion's first test flight]

The spacecraft beamed back some amazing images of the limb of the planet from its window during the test before it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. U.S. Navy officials have now fished Orion out of the ocean, and the craft is being transported back to Florida where scientists will collect the data it recorded during its flight.

This first flight did not include the SLS, but instead used the United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket for a boost into orbit. Another test flight with Orion and SLS together will take place in 2017 or 2018. Crewed missions, according to the current NASA schedule, will take place in 2021.