Orion (spacecraft)

This article is about NASA's crew vehicle. For other spacecraft and rockets called Orion, see Orion in astronautics.
Role: Beyond LEO spacecraft.[1]
Crew: 2–6[2]
Launch vehicle: Space Launch System,

Delta IV Heavy (Exploration Flight Test 1),

Ares I (canceled)

First launch: December 5, 2014 (uncrewed test launch)[3][4][5][6]
Height: Approximately 3.3 m (11 ft)
Diameter: 5 m (16 ft)
Pressurized volume: 19.56 m3 (691 cu ft) [7]
Habitable volume: 8.95 m3 (316 cu ft)
Capsule mass: 10,387 kg (22,899 lb)
Service Module mass: 15,461 kg (34,086 lb)
Total mass: 25,848 kg (56,985 lb)
Service module propellant mass: 9,276 kg (20,450 lb)
Total delta-v: ~1,340 m/s (4,400 ft/s)[7]
Endurance: 21.1 days[8]
Extra Modules Asteroid Redirect Vehicle, Habitat Module,etc.

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV) is an American spacecraft intended to carry a crew of four[7] astronauts to destinations at or beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). Currently under development by NASA[9] for launch on the Space Launch System,[10] Orion is intended to facilitate human exploration of asteroids and of Mars and to retrieve crew or supplies from the ISS if needed.[11]

The Orion MPCV was announced by NASA on May 24, 2011, and is currently under development.[11] Its design is based on the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle from the cancelled Constellation program.[12] It has two main modules. The Orion command module is being built by Lockheed Martin at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.[13] The Orion Service Module, provided by the European Space Agency,[14][15] is being built by Airbus Defence and Space.

The MPCV's first test flight (uncrewed), known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), was launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket on December 5, 2014, on a flight lasting 4 hours and 24 minutes, landing at its target in the Pacific Ocean at 10:29 Central[3][4][16][17] (delayed from the prior day due to technical and weather problems[18]). The first mission to carry astronauts is not expected to take place until 2023 at the earliest, although NASA officials have said that their staff is working toward an "aggressive internal goal" of 2021.[19] However, a July 2016 Government Accountability Office report cast doubt on even the 2023 launch date, suggesting it may slip up to 6 months.[20] The report gave only a 40% confidence in the 2021 launch date, and suggested the aggressive goal may be counterproductive to the program.


Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV)

Orion CEV design as of 2009.

On January 14, 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush announced the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) as part of the Vision for Space Exploration.[21] The CEV was partly a reaction to the Space Shuttle Columbia accident, the subsequent findings and report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), and the White House's review of the American space program. The CEV effectively replaced the conceptual Orbital Space Plane (OSP), which was proposed after the cancellation of the Lockheed Martin X-33 program to produce a replacement for the space shuttle. As the Vision for Space Exploration was developed into the Constellation program under NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, the Crew Exploration Vehicle was renamed the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, after the constellation of the same name.[22]

Constellation proposed using the Orion CEV in both crew and cargo variants to support the International Space Station and as a crew vehicle for a return to the Moon. The Apollo-like design included a service module for life support and propulsion and was originally intended to land on solid ground on the US west coast using airbags, but later changed to ocean splashdown.[23] The Orion CEV weighs about 23 tonnes, less than the 30 tonne Apollo command/service module. The crew module would weigh about 8.9 tonnes, greater than the equivalent Apollo command module at 5.8 tonnes. With a diameter of 5 metres as opposed to 3.9 metres, the Orion CEV will provide 2.5 times greater volume as compared to the Apollo CM.[24] The service module was originally planned to use liquid methane (LCH4) as its fuel, but switched to hypergolic propellants due to the infancy of oxygen/methane-powered rocket technologies and the goal of launching the Orion CEV by 2012.[25][26]

The Orion CEV design consisted of two main parts: a conical crew module (CM) and a cylindrical service module (SM) holding the spacecraft's propulsion system and expendable supplies. Both were based substantially on the Apollo command and service modules (Apollo CSM) flown between 1967 and 1975.[27]

The Orion CEV was to be launched on an Ares I rocket to low Earth orbit, where it would rendezvous with the Altair lunar surface access module (LSAM) launched on a heavy-lift Ares V launch vehicle for lunar missions.

Cancellation of Constellation program

On May 7, 2009, the Obama administration enlisted the Augustine Commission to perform a full independent review of the ongoing NASA space exploration program. The commission found the then current Constellation Program to be woefully under-budgeted, behind schedule by four years or more in several essential components, with significant cost overruns, and unlikely to be capable of meeting any of its current scheduled goals under its current budget.[28][29] As a consequence, the commission recommended a significant re-allocation of goals and resources. As one of the many outcomes based on these recommendations, on October 11, 2010, the Constellation program was cancelled, ending development of the Altair, Ares I, and Ares V. The Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle survived the cancellation and was renamed the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), to be launched on the Space Launch System.[30]

Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV)

Through the program restructuring from Constellation to Post Constellation, the Orion development program moved from the development of three different versions of the Orion capsule, each for a different task,[31] to the development of a single version capable of performing multiple tasks.[7] On October 30, 2014, the somewhat redesigned Multi-Purpose spacecraft completed its first Flight Readiness Review (FRR), allowing the vehicle to be integrated with the Delta IV rocket and readied for launch. On December 5, 2014 it was successfully launched into space and retrieved at sea after splashdown on the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), marking NASA's re-entry into the business of designing and producing new crewed spacecraft.[32][33]


The Orion MPCV takes basic design elements from the Apollo Command Module that took astronauts to the moon, but its technology and capability are more advanced. It is designed to support long-duration deep space missions, with up to 21 days active crew time plus 6 months quiescent.[34] During the quiescent period crew life support would be provided by another module such as a Deep Space Habitat. The spacecraft's life support, propulsion, thermal protection and avionics systems are designed to be upgradeable as new technologies become available.

The MPCV spacecraft includes both crew and service modules, and a spacecraft adaptor.

The MPCV's crew module is larger than Apollo's and can support more crew members for short or long-duration missions. The service module fuels and propels the spacecraft as well as storing oxygen and water for astronauts. The service module's structure is also being designed to provide locations to mount scientific experiments and cargo.

Crew module (CM)

Interior of the Orion mock-up in October 2014.
Test of Orion's parachute system in July 2012.

The Orion crew module (CM) is the reusable transportation capsule that provides a habitat for the crew, provides storage for consumables and research instruments, and serves as the docking port for crew transfers.[35] The crew module is the only part of the MPCV that returns to Earth after each mission and is a 57.5° frustum shape, similar to that of the Apollo command module. As projected, the CM will be 5.02 meters (16 ft 6 in) in diameter and 3.3 meters (10 ft 10 in) in length,[36] with a mass of about 8.5 metric tons (19,000 lb). It was manufactured by the Lockheed Martin Corporation.[37] It will have more than 50% more volume than the Apollo capsule, which had an interior volume of 5.9 m3 (210 cu ft), and will carry four to six astronauts.[38] After extensive study, NASA has selected the Avcoat ablator system for the Orion crew module. Avcoat, which is composed of silica fibers with a resin in a honeycomb made of fiberglass and phenolic resin, was formerly used on the Apollo missions and on select areas of the space shuttle for early flights.[39]

Orion's CM will use advanced technologies, including:

The CM will be built of the aluminium-lithium alloy used on the Space Shuttle external tank, and the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets. The CM will be covered in the same Nomex felt-like thermal protection blankets used on parts on the shuttle not subject to critical heating, such as the payload bay doors. The reusable recovery parachutes will be based on the parachutes used on both the Apollo spacecraft and the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters, and will also use the same Nomex cloth for construction. Water landings will be the exclusive means of recovery for the Orion CM.[23][41]

To allow Orion to mate with other vehicles it will be equipped with the NASA Docking System, which is somewhat similar to the APAS-95 docking mechanism used on the Shuttle fleet. The spacecraft will employ a Launch Escape System (LES) like that used in Mercury and Apollo, along with an Apollo-derived "Boost Protective Cover" (made of fiberglass), to protect the Orion CM from aerodynamic and impact stresses during the first 2 12 minutes of ascent. Its designers claim that the MPCV is designed to be 10 times safer during ascent and reentry than the Space Shuttle.[42] The CM is designed to be refurbished and reused. In addition, all of the Orion's component parts have been designed to be as generic as possible, so that between the craft's first test flight in 2014 and its projected Mars voyage in the 2030s, the spacecraft can be upgraded as new technologies become available.[35]

ATV-based service module (ESM)

Main article: Orion Service Module
Artist's concept of an Orion spacecraft including the ATV-derived service module with a propulsion stage attached at the back

In May 2011 the ESA director general announced a possible collaboration with NASA to work on a successor to the ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle).[43] On June 21, 2012, Airbus Defence and Space announced that they had been awarded two separate studies, each worth €6.5 million, to evaluate the possibilities of using technology and experience gained from ATV and Columbus related work for future missions. The first looked into the possible construction of a service module which would be used in tandem with the Orion capsule.[44] The second examined the possible production of a versatile multi purpose orbital vehicle.[45]

On November 21, 2012, the ESA decided to develop an ATV-derived service module for the Orion MPCV.[46] The service module will be manufactured by Airbus Defence and Space in Bremen, Germany.[47] NASA announced on January 16, 2013 that the ESA service module will first fly on Exploration Mission 1, the debut launch of the Space Launch System.[14]

ESA's contribution is going to be critical to the success of Orion's 2017 mission

—NASA Orion Program manager[14]

Testing of the European Service Module began in February 2016, at the Space Power Facility.[48]

Launch Abort System (LAS)

In the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during ascent, a launch escape system called the Launch Abort System (LAS) will separate the crew module from the launch vehicle using a solid rocket-powered launch abort motor (AM), which will produce more thrust (though for a much shorter duration) than the Atlas 109-D booster that launched astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962.[49] There are two other propulsion systems in the LAS stack: the attitude control motor (ACM) and the jettison motor (JM). The ACM is a thruster system on the escape tower used to position and orient the capsule.[50] The jettison motor is a solid rocket system used to separate the LAS from the crew capsule.[51] On July 10, 2007, Orbital Sciences, the prime contractor for the LAS, awarded Alliant Techsystems (ATK) a $62.5 million sub-contract to, "design, develop, produce, test and deliver the launch abort motor." ATK, which had the prime contract for the first stage of the Ares I rocket, intended to use a "reverse flow" design for the motor.[52] On July 9, 2008, NASA announced that ATK had completed a vertical test stand at a facility in Promontory, Utah to test launch abort motors for the Orion spacecraft.[53] Another long-time space motor contractor, Aerojet, was awarded the jettison motor design and development contract for the LAS. As of September 2008, Aerojet has, along with team members Orbital Sciences, Lockheed Martin and NASA, successfully demonstrated two full-scale test firings of the jettison motor. This motor is important to every flight in that it functions to pull the LAS tower away from the vehicle after a successful launch. The motor also functions in the same manner for an abort scenario.

Existing craft and mockups

The Orion Drop Test Article during a test on February 29, 2012


Environmental testing

NASA performed environmental testing of Orion from 2007 to 2011 at the Glenn Research Center Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio. The Center's Space Power Facility is the world's largest thermal vacuum chamber.[67]

Launch Abort System (LAS) testing

ATK Aerospace successfully completed the first Orion Launch Abort System (LAS) test on November 20, 2008. The LAS motor could provide 500,000 lbf (2,200 kN) of thrust in case an emergency situation should arise on the launch pad or during the first 300,000 feet (91 km) of the rocket's climb to orbit. The 2008 test firing of the LAS was the first time a motor with reverse flow propulsion technology of this scale had ever been tested.[68]

On March 2, 2009, a full size, full weight command module mockup (pathfinder) began its journey from the Langley Research Center to the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, for at-gantry launch vehicle assembly training and for LAS testing.[69]

On May 10, 2010, NASA successfully executed the LAS PAD-Abort-1 test at White Sands New Mexico, launching a boilerplate (mock-up) Orion capsule to an altitude of approximately 6000 feet. The test used three solid-fuel rocket motors  a main thrust motor, an attitude control motor and the jettison motor.[70]

Future LAS test plans: As of February 2014, NASA planned to launch the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle Ascent Abort 2 test flight (AA‑2) from Spaceport Florida Launch Complex 46 in 2018.[71]

Pre-launch Orion splashdown recovery testing

Before the first test flight and recovery of the Orion space vehicle at sea in December 2014, several preparatory vehicle recovery tests were performed. In 2009 during the Constellation phase of the program, the Post-landing Orion Recovery Test (PORT) was designed to determine and evaluate methods of crew rescue and what kind of motions the astronaut crew could expect after landing. This would include conditions outside the capsule for the recovery team. The evaluation process supported NASA's design of landing recovery operations including equipment, ship and crew needs.

The Port Test used a full-scale boilerplate (mock-up) of NASA's Orion crew module and was tested in water under simulated and real weather conditions. Tests began March 23, 2009 with a Navy-built, 18,000-pound boilerplate when it was placed in a test pool at the Naval Surface Warfare Center's Carderock Division in West Bethesda, Md. Full sea testing ran April 6–30, 2009, at various locations off the coast of NASA's Kennedy Space Center with media coverage.[72]

Under the Orion program testing, Orion continued the "crawl, walk, run" approach used in PORT testing.

The "crawl" phase was performed August 12–16, 2013 with the Stationary Recovery Test (SRT). The Stationary Recovery Test demonstrated the recovery hardware and techniques that were to be employed for the recovery of the Orion crew module in the protected waters of Naval Station Norfolk utilizing the USS Arlington as the recovery ship. The USS Arlington is a LPD 17 amphibious assault ship. The recovery of the Orion crew module utilizes unique features of the LPD 17 class ship to safely and economically recover the Orion crew module and eventually its astronaut crew.[73]

The "walk" and "run" phases were performed with the Underway Recovery Test (URT). Also utilizing the LPD 17 class ship, the URT were performed in more realistic sea conditions off the coast of California in early 2014 to prepare the US Navy / NASA team for recovering the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) Orion crew module. The URT tests completed the pre-launch test phase of the Orion recovery system.

Exploration Flight Test 1

Liftoff sequence and space entry of Orion on 5 December 2014

At 7:05 AM EST on December 5, 2014 the Orion capsule was launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket for its first test flight, and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean about 4.5 hours later. The two-orbit flight was NASA's first launch of a vehicle for human spaceflight since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, and the first time that NASA had launched a spacecraft capable of taking humans beyond low earth orbit (LEO) since the launch of Apollo 17 in 1972 (42 years prior). Orion reached an altitude of 3,600 mi (5,800 km) and speeds of up to 20,000 mph (8,900 m/s) on a flight that tested Orion's heat shield, parachutes, jettisoning components, and on-board computers.[74] Orion was recovered by USS Anchorage and brought to San Diego, California before its return to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.[75]

Orion Program mission schedule

List only includes relatively near missions; more missions are planned than are listed below.

Orion missions, launch history
Mission Acronym Rocket Crewed Launch date Result Duration Remarks Reference
Exploration Flight Test 1 EFT-1 Delta IV Heavy No December 5, 2014 Success 4 hours,
24 minutes,
two orbits
High apogee test flight of the Orion crew module in Earth orbit.
Space Launch System 1,
Exploration Mission 1
SLS Block I No September 2018 Planned Send uncrewed Orion capsule on trip around the Moon. [76][77]
Space Launch System 2,
Exploration Mission 2
SLS Block IB Yes August 2021 Planned Send an Orion capsule with four crew members on lunar flyby [78][19][79][80][81]
Asteroid Crewed Redirect Mission ACRM SLS Block IB Yes 2026 Planned Send an Orion capsule in 2026 with four crew members to an asteroid that had been robotically captured and placed in lunar orbit in late 2025 (Asteroid Redirect Mission). [82][83]

A number of proposed missions have also been noted.


For fiscal years 2006 through 2015, the Orion program had expended funding totaling $11.1 billion in nominal dollars. This is equivalent to $12.5 billion adjusting to 2016 dollars using the NASA New Start Inflation Indices.[84]

Fiscal Year Funding ($millions) Line Item Name
2006 $839.2 CEV[85]
2007 $714.5 CEV[86]
2008 $1,174.1 CEV[87]
2009 $1,747.9 CEV[87]
2010 $1,640 CEV[87]
2011 $1,196.0 MPCV[88]
2012 $1,200 Orion MPCV[89]
2013 $1,138 Orion MPCV[90]
2014 $1,197 Orion Program[91]
2015 $1,194 Orion Program[91][92]
2006-2015 Total = $11,136 million

For 2016 the Orion program funding was enacted at $1,270M[93] with an additional $4,532M[93] planned for 2017 through 2021. The Orion program has a 70% confidence level for initial program completion by 2023 according to the Associate Administrator for NASA, Robert Lightfoot.[19][94][95] Assuming the same levels of yearly funding as seen to date, 2022-2023 is approximately $2,400M in additional funding for the Orion program.

The sum of the prior Orion program funding from 2006 to 2015, the funding enacted for 2016, the funding planned for 2017 through 2021, and funding through completion of development by 2023, is $20.4 billion (nominal).

These prior Orion costs:

  1. Exclude costs "for production, operations, or sustainment of additional crew capsules, despite plans to use and possibly enhance this capsule after 2021"[96]
  2. Exclude costs of the first Service Module and spare parts[97] to be provided by the European Space Agency for the test flight of Orion in 2018 (about $1 billion)[98]
  3. Exclude costs to assemble, integrate, prepare and launch the Orion and it’s launcher (funded under the NASA Ground Operations Project,[99] currently about $400M[100] per year)
  4. Exclude costs of the launcher, the SLS, for the Orion spacecraft

There are no NASA estimates for the Orion program recurring yearly costs once operational, for a certain flight rate per year, or for the resulting average cost per flight.

Future missions

On April 15, 2010 Barack Obama tasked NASA with the goal of first directing its resources towards the crewed exploration of a near Earth asteroid, to be scheduled by the mid 2020s, and next with the objective of delivering one or more astronauts to Martian orbit, and returning them safely to Earth by the mid 2030s.[101] Congressional budgetary allocations and the long-range plans of NASA have since both been written/rewritten to conform to these two long range 2010 presidential mandates.[102][103] This most recent change in NASA's long range objectives notably omitted the earlier intermediary objective of the establishment of a moon base first (which had been included in the now cancelled Constellation program).[103] The potential of the near-term establishment of a moon-base via a privately funded venture, or via the space programs of other nations remains a possibility.[104]

Asteroid Redirect Mission

This mission would place an asteroid in lunar orbit, rather than sending astronauts to an asteroid in deep space.[105] The Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology, in partnership with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, estimates a mission cost of approximately $2.6 billion.[105][106] By contrast, original estimates for colonization of the Moon, as a part of the Constellation Program, reached a total cost of $150 billion.[107] However, the $2.6 billion estimate is solely the cost of asteroid capture. It does not include any developmental costs, nor does it cover the costs of Orion flights to a 4 m asteroid once it is captured, so this comparison does not include the full costs of this enterprise.[106] The Obama Administration estimates that this mission would actually cost even less than the estimated $2.6 billion[105] and was a part of the FY2014 budget request.[105] Steps toward accomplishing this mission would simultaneously develop advanced solar electric propulsion technology.[105]

Mars missions

Main article: Human mission to Mars

The Orion capsule is designed to support future missions to send astronauts to Mars. Since the Orion capsule provides only about 2.25 m3 (79 cu ft) of living space per crew member,[108] the use of an additional Deep Space Habitat module will be needed for long duration missions. The habitat module will provide additional space and supplies, as well as facilitate spacecraft maintenance, mission communications, exercise, training, and personal recreation.[109] During such long term missions, the Orion capsule will normally only be fully occupied by the crew during launch, splash-down, and other crew-transfer operations. Some plans for DSH modules would provide approximately 70.0 m3 (2,472 cu ft) of living space per crew member,[109] though the DSH module is currently only in its early planning stages. DSH sizes and configurations may vary slightly, depending on crew and mission needs.[110]

See also


Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) 1, 2, and CCiCap (formerly CCDev 3) related:

Other spacecraft


 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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