At the end of the Apollo program, only unmanned vehicles, such as probes, robots, and satellites, left the low-earth orbit. The US Aerospace Agency has high hopes for the Orion spacecraft, despite the many challenges that accompanied its development.
The Orion Multi-Purpose Vehicle (MPCV) is a spacecraft being developed by NASA to deliver astronauts beyond Earth's orbit. The agency conducted its first test flight in December 2014. The next flight will be the first unmanned test of the space launch system, followed by manned missions in the 2020s.
Shaped like an Apollo, Orion is designed to carry six astronauts to places like the Moon and Mars. Nevertheless, the new device is much larger than its predecessor and is equipped with advanced electronics, which astronauts did not have in the 60s and 70s of the XX century.
On passenger flights, Orion will fly in tandem with the Space Launch System, a next-generation accelerator designed to take astronauts out of low Earth orbit. However, the first test flight of a passenger spacecraft took place using a Delta 4 Heavy heavy rocket.
How Orion was created
The main developer of the spacecraft is Lockheed Martin. The company began work on Orion in 2004, while battling for a contract that was valued at approximately $ 8.15 billion at the time of signing in August 2006.
Initially, Orion was built for NASA's Constellation program, in the process of which it was planned to deliver people to the ISS, the Moon and - as a result - to Mars. In 2010, the program was canceled after the administration of US President Barack Obama demanded that the Aerospace Agency focus on other goals.
At that time, NASA had already spent five billion on the development of Orion, and Lockheed Martin had been working on the spacecraft for almost six years. In early 2011, NASA hinted that the device could be repurposed for new purposes. The agency soon presented its plan for a multipurpose manned spacecraft, which was relatively close in design to the Orion spacecraft, but could be used for a new mandate.
“We made our decision based on our progress,” said Doug Cook, NASA Exploration Systems Mission Directorate Assistant Administrator on May 24, 2011. "It was decided that it was best to stick with [the Orion design]."
Orion consists of a round candy capsule and a service module. It is eight meters long and five meters in diameter. The inhabited volume of the spacecraft is 8, 95 cubic meters, which is one and a half times more than on Apollo.
Orion's command module is just one of several parts of the craft. It has a launch cancellation system to evacuate astronauts from the spacecraft if something goes wrong at launch.
The service module, built by the European Space Agency (ESA), has solar panels to generate electricity, oxygen to breathe, and rocket motors to propel the craft. Orion also has a spacecraft adapter (covering the service module during launch) and an instrument cluster that includes guidance and control systems for the booster.
First test flight and further plans
Orion's first unmanned test flight - Exploration Flight Test-1 or EFT-1 - took place on December 5, 2014. It was the first flight in more than 40 years - since the last Apollo mission in 1972 - during which a spacecraft designed for humans flew out of low Earth orbit.
NASA officials said the space capsule worked with little or no problems, and the flight lasted 4.5 hours. Before moving on to the high-speed entry into the dense layers of the atmosphere, Orion hovered at an altitude of 5800 kilometers above the Earth. The parachutes and huge heat shield of the vehicle worked successfully. Excellent photos of the planet were sent to Earth, taken from the capsule's window before it plunged into the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
NASA originally planned to conduct the next Orion flight in 2017 aboard the Space Launch System rocket. However, 2018 is coming to an end, and the flight schedule has shifted to 2020. There is information that new flights may be postponed to even later dates.
In 2018, NASA's Office of the Inspector General released a report stating that the development of the Space Launch System was delayed and had already exceeded its budget. The document also mentioned numerous problems associated with the development of the rocket, including overly optimistic production times, weather problems and technical problems.
Nevertheless, testing and development of Orion continues. Some very important tests have been done this year, including the last parachute test, the installation of a heat shield and the completion of the pressure vessel.
As a result, one of the first destinations for Orion could be the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), a lunar space station currently under development. Deployment of the station is scheduled for mid-2020s.