Project Orion: NASA's Next Spaceship Takes Shape
This schematic details NASA's next spaceship Orion, which will be built by contractor Lockheed Martin.
Credit: NASA.

The pieces are coming together for NASA's next spaceship Orion as space agency engineers begin working with lead contractor Lockheed Martin to shape the vehicle's cockpit.

"We're bringing the design teams together and looking at the features of this so that we can adjust and have one integrated concept," NASA's Orion project manager Caris 'Skip' Hatfield told this month, adding that astronauts are key in the design process. "We don't want to deliver them a cockpit and have them hate it."

The Orion cockpit is just one of many features under review by NASA and Lockheed engineers as the agency discusses the requirements necessary for the capsule-based spacecraft, which is expected to begin manned flights to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2014 and return astronauts to the Moon by no later than 2020.

Engineers are using a Lockheed Orion mock-up, along with a NASA-built counterpart at the agency's Johnson Space Center, to set out a definitive design for the post-shuttle era spacecraft. The contractor then opened a mock-up of the spacecraft to reporters at its Houston-based Exploration Development Laboratory this month.

"This is a long way from ready-to-cut metal," NASA astronaut Lee Morin, who is helping to develop the avionics and crew systems for Orion vehicles, said in an interview. "But it's a very important step in that direction."

NASA tapped Lockheed to build the solar-powered Orion vehicle on Aug. 31. The spacecraft is designed to succeed NASA's three space shuttles - Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour - which are set to be retired by September 2010.

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While the Orion vehicles owes much of its capsule look to NASA's Apollo vehicles, which carried astronauts to the Moon and Skylab space station during the late 1960s and early 1970s, its updated interior and avionics will bring the design squarely into the 21st century.

"The Apollo wasn't really in the computer age," Cleon Lacefield, Lockheed's Orion program manager, told during a tour of a spacecraft mock-up. "We are going to have smart [computer screens] and there will be a keyboard in between, and from that you can receive all the information you need. So you don't have to have a zillion and one switches."

With a diameter of about 16.5 feet (five meters), Orion capsules are expected to have about 2.5 times the habitable volume of their Apollo predecessors, with all primary systems routed through a fold-out panel of touch screens that swings into place above the pilot and commander seats located beneath the primary windows.

"It's going to be a lot larger than Apollo," Lacefield said. "The whole idea is to maximize volume."

At least two more windows, one to either side of the pilot and commander seats, and one hatch portal are planned for Lockheed's current Orion design. Like NASA's Apollo vehicles, the entry hatch is mounted to Orion's side while a docking tunnel - for either the ISS or lunar vehicles - opens at the top.

Two launch arrangements - a six-seater for ISS-bound flights and four-person array for lunar missions - are on the drawing board, with the seats themselves made up of foldable metal frames connected by sturdy webbing.

"These seats are designed so that if you lost two of the four parachutes during landing, the crew is secure," Lacefield said, adding that the seats are also designed to keep astronauts safe should their capsule tip over to one side after touchdown. "There's a lot of capability in these seats."

Lacefield said that storage space will line the floor - on Earth - of Orion in the form of a wall of lockers, while the area directly opposite of the main windows is reserved for electronics, life support and computer equipment. The rest of the walls, he added, are expected to be usable free space.

Meanwhile, Morin and his fellow astronauts have been working to best identify exactly what key systems Orion crews will need to operate, the best shape for windows and other features.

"We made it our business to go out and see as many cockpits as we could," Morin said, adding that astronauts examined the flight decks of the military's F-22 jet fighter, the massive Airbus A380 aircraft, as well as commercial and business jets. "We aren't missing some good technologies and some good ideas."

The goal, Morin said, is to establish a fundamental philosophy for astronaut controls aboard Orion that can then be transferred to future lunar-bound spacecraft.

"We're looking at trying to have as flexible a system as we can," Morin said. "And we certainly have it in the back of our minds, of how we can use this experience for future vehicles."

Of solar wings and heat shields

One of the key departures from NASA's past crewed spacecraft - ISS notwithstanding - is the addition of two solar wings to power Orion's service module, which will house most of the vehicle's systems and main engine. NASA's Apollo capsules relied on fuel cells, which also power space shuttle systems in orbit today.

"It adds a different set of things you've got to pay attention to," Hatfield said, adding that the solar panels must work every time. "You want to get up to orbit and deploy those arrays right away otherwise you have to turn around and come home because you have no power."

NASA also awarded a $14 million contract to Huntington Beach, California's Boeing Co. this month to develop the vital ablative heat shields that will protect Orion vehicles as they reenter the Earth's atmosphere at speeds of 16,700 miles per hour (26,876 kilometer per hour) from the ISS, and up to 25,000 miles per hour (40,233 kilometers per hour) on a return trip from the Moon.

The contract includes plans for heat shield samples, designs, a full-scale demonstration unit and a series of detailed studies to evaluate the proprietary phenolic impregnated carbon ablator (PICA) mixture manufactured by Boeing's Maine-based subcontractor Fiber Materials, Inc.

Hatfield said there are still many other components of NASA's renewed lunar exploration program that are still yet to be awarded to contractors, among them: planned lunar habitats, rovers, rocket stages and engines.

"Now that we're all together, it's just amazing," Hatfield said. "It's just great to see the excitement and enthusiasm."