December 4th is the date set for the first test flight of NASA’s new Orion capsule. It will be launched into Earth orbit using a Delta IV rocket at about 7:05 AM. Then, Orion will circle the Earth twice, conduct some test maneuvers, then enter the atmosphere at about 80% of the velocity the capsule would have if it was returning from the Moon. If the reentry systems work properly, Orion should splash down in the Pacific off the coast of San Diego, California before noon. Unless it lands like the capsule in “Gravity”, Orion will be bobbing at the surface and picked up by a waiting ship.
NASA has been loudly promoting Orion, claiming that it is the vehicle that will take American astronauts beyond low Earth orbit and to destinations such as the Moon and Mars. Much ink and many pixels have been used to promote Orion as a truly advanced spacecraft. But let’s see it for what it is.
I dimly recall back in the early 1970’s there was a proposal to build a larger version of the Apollo-era command module. The plans were all drawn up for it, then it was decided that there was no need for it. Orion looks like the resurrection of this project. Of course, Orion does have some updated technology, such as new heat shield material, far superior computers, nicely decorated interior, and touchscreen panels (like the controls you would find on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or on an Asgard ship from the “Stargate” franchise, if you prefer). But don’t be fooled, it is still based on your father’s (or grandfather’s depending on your age) Apollo command module.
Actually, there is something about Orion that is actually inferior to the original Apollo-era vehicle. The Orion will use a service module that is based on the ESA’s (European Space Agency) Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) that has been used to send supplies up to the ISS. This ATV-derived service module will use solar panels instead of fuel cells to generate electrical power and will certainly have far less powerful engines than the original Apollo-era service module did.
Then, there was a statement made about the Orion by a Russian commentator who pointed out that, for a vessel that is supposed to house a crew for up to three weeks or so, it lacked certain amenities. While on a short trip to the Moon, that might not be a big deal since the original Apollo astronauts didn’t complain about the lack of a convenience, it could pose a problem for longer trips.
What bothers me is how NASA keeps pushing the idea that Orion will take astronauts to Mars. It is simply way too small for the job (unless someone manages to develop the technology used to create the sub-light propulsion systems of mainstream science fiction programs). Even Robert Zubrin (creator of the Mars Direct concept of a reasonably priced program of Mars exploration) and his colleagues and the folks at Mars Direct have put more thought into designing a spacecraft to take people to Mars.
Why has NASA gone so far overboard in promoting Orion? Probably because that it is about the only idea they have left for manned spaceflight (besides the Space Launch System – SLS – heavy rocket).
Hopefully the test flight of Orion will go well and not wind up exploding, running out of power, sinking on splashdown, or anything like that. But do you think that Orion’s “Back to the Future” approach is the way to go or do you think it’s another one of NASA’s ideas that will fall well short of the mark?