The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV) is a US-European spacecraft intended to carry a crew of four astronauts to destinations at or beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). Currently under development by the NASA and ESA for launch on the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion is intended to be the main crew vehicle of the Artemis lunar exploration program as well as potential crew flights to asteroids and Mars.
Artemis 1 is planned to be the first flight of Orion on SLS, Artemis 2 the first crewed flight, and Artemis 3 the first lunar landing via the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. However, a July 2016 Government Accountability Office report cast doubt on the planned initial launch date and suggested that an aggressive goal may be counterproductive to the program.
The Orion MPCV is cosmetically somewhat similar to the Apollo command module that first took astronauts to the Moon, but is vastly more capable due to technological advances. It is designed to support long-duration deep space missions, with up to 21 days active crew time plus 6 months quiescent. 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 can be upgraded as new technologies become available.
The MPCV spacecraft includes both crew and service modules, and a spacecraft adapter. The MPCV’s crew module is larger than Apollo’s and can support more crew members for short or long-duration missions. The European service module propels and powers 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)
The Orion crew module (CM) is a reusable transportation capsule that provides a habitat for the crew, provides storage for consumables and research instruments, and contains the docking port for crew transfers. The crew module is the only part of the MPCV that returns to Earth after each mission and is a 57.5° frustum shape 5.02 meters (16 ft 6 in) in diameter and 3.3 meters (10 ft 10 in) in length, with a mass of about 8.5 metric tons (19,000 lb). It was manufactured by the Lockheed Martin Corporation. It will have 50% more volume than the Apollo capsule and will carry four to six astronauts. 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.
Orion’s CM will use advanced technologies, including:
- Glass cockpit digital control systems derived from those of the Boeing 787.
- An “autodock” feature, like those of Progress, the Automated Transfer Vehicle, and Dragon 2, with provision for the flight crew to take over in an emergency. Prior US spacecraft have all been docked by the crew.
- Improved waste-management facilities, with a miniature camping-style toilet and the unisex “relief tube” used on the space shuttle.
- A nitrogen/oxygen (N
2) mixed atmosphere at either sea level (101.3 kPa or 14.69 psi) or reduced (55.2 to 70.3 kPa or 8.01 to 10.20 psi) pressure.
- Far more advanced computers than on prior crew vehicles.
The CM will be built of aluminium-lithium alloy. 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 be constructed of Nomex cloth. Water landings will be the exclusive means of recovery for the Orion CM.
To allow Orion to mate with other vehicles, it will be equipped with the NASA Docking System. The spacecraft will employ a Launch Escape System (LES) along with a “Boost Protective Cover” (made of fiberglass), to protect the Orion CM from aerodynamic and impact stresses during the first 2 1⁄2 minutes of ascent. Its designers claim that the MPCV is designed to be 10 times safer during ascent and reentry than the Space Shuttle. The CM is designed to be refurbished and reused. In addition, all of the Orion’s component parts have been designed to be as modular 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.
ATV-based European service module (ESM)
In May 2011 the ESA director general announced a possible collaboration with NASA to work on a successor to the ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle). 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. The second examined the possible production of a versatile multi purpose orbital vehicle.
On November 21, 2012, the ESA decided to develop an ATV-derived service module for the Orion MPCV. The service module is being manufactured by Airbus Defence and Space in Bremen, Germany. NASA announced on January 16, 2013 that the ESA service module will first fly on Artemis 1 (then known as Exploration Mission-1), the debut launch of the Space Launch System.
Testing of the European service module began in February 2016, at the Space Power Facility.
On 16 February 2017 a €200m contract was signed between Airbus and the European Space Agency for the production of a second European service module for use on the first crewed Orion flight, Artemis 2 (then known as Exploration Mission-2).
Launch Abort System (LAS)
In the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during ascent, a Launch Abort System (LAS) will separate the crew module from the launch vehicle using three solid rocket motors: an abort motor (AM), an attitude control motor (ACM), and a jettison motor (JM). The AM provides the thrust needed to accelerate the capsule, while the ACM is used to point the AM and the jettison motor separates the LAS from the crew capsule. On 10 July 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,” which uses a “reverse flow” design. On 9 July 2008, NASA announced that ATK had completed construction of a vertical test stand at a facility in Promontory, Utah to test launch abort motors for the Orion spacecraft. 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 pulls the LAS tower away from the vehicle after a successful launch.
The Orion MPCV was announced by NASA on 24 May 2011. Its design is based on the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle from the cancelled Constellation program. The Orion command module is being built by Lockheed Martin at the Michoud Assembly Facility, while the Orion service module is being built by Airbus Defence and Space with funding from the European Space Agency.
The MPCV’s first uncrewed test flight (EFT-1) was launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket on 5 December 2014 and lasted 4 hours and 24 minutes before landing at its target in the Pacific Ocean.
Funding history and planning
For fiscal years 2006 through 2018, the Orion program expended funding totaling $15,983 million in nominal dollars. This is equivalent to $18,138 million adjusting to 2018 dollars using the NASA New Start Inflation Indices.
Excluded from the prior Orion costs are:
- Costs “for production, operations, or sustainment of additional crew capsules, despite plans to use and possibly enhance this capsule after 2021”
- Costs of the first service module and spare parts, which are provided by ESA for the test flight of Orion in 2020 (about US$1 billion)
- Costs to assemble, integrate, prepare and launch the Orion and its launcher (funded under the NASA Ground Operations Project, currently about $400M per year)
- Costs of the launcher, the SLS, for the Orion spacecraft
For 2019 to 2023, NASA estimated yearly budgets for Orion range from $1.1 to $1.2 billion. In late 2015, the Orion program was assessed at a 70% confidence level for its first crewed flight by 2023.
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 costs per flight. In 2016, the NASA manager of exploration systems development said that Orion, SLS, and supporting ground systems should cost “US$2 billion or less” annually. NASA will not provide the cost per flight of Orion and SLS, with associate administrator William H. Gerstenmaier stating “costs must be derived from the data and are not directly available. This was done by design to lower NASA’s expenditures” in 2017.
Test articles and mockups
- Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF) in Johnson Space Center, includes a full-scale Orion capsule mock-up for astronaut training.
- Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) Orion (originally designated OFT-1), constructed at Michoud Assembly Facility, was delivered by Lockheed Martin to the Kennedy Space Center on July 2, 2012 and launched and recovered on December 5, 2014.
- The Boilerplate Test Article (BTA) underwent splashdown testing at the Langley Research Center. This same test article has been modified to support Orion Recovery Testing in stationary and underway recovery tests. The BTA contains over 150 sensors to gather data on its test drops. Testing of the 18,000 pound mockup ran from July 2011 to January 6, 2012.
- The Ground Test Article (GTA) stack, located at Lockheed Martin in Denver, is undergoing vibration testing. It is made up by the Orion Ground Test Vehicle (GTV) combined with its Launch Abort System (LAS). Further testing will see the addition of service module simulator panels and Thermal Protection System (TPS) to the GTA stack.
- The Drop Test Article (DTA), also known as the Drop Test Vehicle (DTV) underwent test drops at the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona from an altitude of 25,000 feet. Testing began in 2007. Drogue chutes deploy around 20,000 and 15,000 feet. Testing of the staged parachutes includes the partial opening and complete failure of one of the three main parachutes. With only two chutes deployed the DTA lands at 33 feet per second, the maximum touchdown speed for Orion’s design. The drop test program has had several failures in 2007, 2008, and 2010, resulting in new DTV being constructed. The landing parachute set is known as the Capsule Parachute Assembly System (CPAS). With all parachutes functional, a landing speed of 17 mph (7.6 m/s) was achieved. A third test vehicle, the PCDTV3, was successfully tested in a drop on 17 April 2012.
Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV)
The Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) was announced on 14 January 2004 as part of the Vision for Space Exploration after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident. The CEV effectively replaced the conceptual Orbital Space Plane (OSP), a proposed 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 stellar constellation and mythical hunter of the same name.
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 crew/command module was originally intended to land on solid ground on the US west coast using airbags but later changed to ocean splashdown, while a service module was included for life support and propulsion. With a diameter of 5 metres as opposed to 3.9 metres, the Orion CEV would have provided 2.5 times greater volume than the Apollo CM. 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.
The Orion CEV was to be launched on the 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
Orion splashdown recovery testing
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, including 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 23 March 2009 with a Navy-built, 18,000-pound boilerplate in a test pool. Full sea testing ran 6-30 April 2009 at various locations off the coast of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center with media coverage.
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 with significant cost overruns, behind schedule by four years or more in several essential components, and unlikely to be capable of meeting any of its scheduled goals. 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 11 October 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.
Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV)
The Orion development program was restructured from three different versions of the Orion capsule, each for a different task, to the development of a single version capable of performing multiple tasks. On 5 December 2014, a developmental Multi-Purpose spacecraft was successfully launched into space and retrieved at sea after splashdown on the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1).
Orion splashdown recovery testing
Before EFT-1 in December 2014 several preparatory vehicle recovery tests were performed. Under the Orion program, testing of Orion continued the “crawl, walk, run” approach established by PORT. 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 LPD-17 type USS Arlington as the recovery ship.
The “walk” and “run” phases were performed with the Underway Recovery Test (URT). Also utilizing a 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
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. Although it was not crewed, the two-orbit flight was NASA’s first launch of a human-rated vehicle since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011. 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. Orion was recovered by USS Anchorage and brought to San Diego, California for its return to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Cancelled Asteroid Redirect Mission
This mission would have placed an asteroid in lunar orbit, rather than sending astronauts to an asteroid in deep space. The mission was given its notice of defunding in April 2017. The development of advanced solar electric propulsion technology originally meant for this mission continues for its potential application on the proposed Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway.
Launch abort system (LAS) testing
An improved abort engine test was successfully completed on 30 March 2019.
Ascent Abort 2
NASA launched the Orion MPCV Ascent Abort-2 test flight (AA‑2) from Spaceport Florida Launch Complex 46 on 2 July 2019.
Orion mission schedule
As of July 2018, Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed Orion lunar flyby launching on SLS in mid-2020. Artemis 2 will be the first crewed flight of Orion, and Artemis 3 will visit the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) before landing on the moon. LOP-G is expected to include a solar-powered communications hub, science laboratory, short-term habitation module, and staging area for rovers and other robots. Various components of the Gateway would be launched on commercial launch vehicles and as Orion co-manifested payloads.
|PA-1|| ||N/A||Orion Launch Abort System (LAS)||Success||95 seconds||First test firing of the Orion launch escape system using a boilerplate Orion|
|EFT-1|| ||N/A||Delta IV Heavy||Success||4h, 24m||Uncrewed orbital test flight of the Orion MPCV and its reaction control systemand heat shield; two orbits around Earth.|
|AA-2|| ||N/A||Orion Abort Test Booster||Success||~2m30||Uncrewed test of the Orion Launch Abort System at Max q, using a 10,000-kilogram (22,000 lb) test article.|
|Artemis 1|| ||N/A||SLS Block 1||Planned||~25d||Uncrewed lunar orbital test flight of Orion; 10 days in a distant retrograde orbit of 60,000 kilometres (37,000 mi) around the Moon before returning to Earth.|
|Artemis 2|| ||4||SLS Block 1||Planned||~9d||Crewed cislunar test flight of Orionwith four astronauts; free-returnflyby of the Moon at a distance of 8,900 kilometres (5,500 mi).|
|Artemis 3|| ||4||SLS Block 1B||Planned||~30d||Crewed flight to the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and landing at the South Pole–Aitken basinwith four astronauts.|
|Artemis 4|| ||4||SLS Block 1B||Planned||~30d||Crewed flight to the Gateway to deliver the U.S. Habitation module; lunar landing to test ISRU and Nuclear surface power.|
|Artemis 5|| ||4||SLS Block 1B||Planned||~30d||Crewed flight to the Gateway to deliver a logistics module; first lunar landing with reusable ascent and transfer stages and further ISRU tests.|
|Artemis 6|| ||4||SLS Block 1B||Planned||~30d||Crewed flight to the Gateway to deliver a logistics module and Canadarm-3; second landing with reusable lander and deployment of Lunar Surface Assets.|
|Artemis 8|| ||4||SLS Block 1B||Planned||>60d||Crewed flight to the Gateway to deliver a logistics module; extended surface mission at the Lunar Surface Asset.|
The Orion capsule is designed to support future missions to send astronauts to Mars, probably to take place in the 2030s. Since the Orion capsule provides only about 2.25 m3(79 cu ft) of living space per crew member, 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. Some plans for DSH modules would provide approximately 70.0 m3 (2,472 cu ft) of living space per crew member, though the DSH module is in its early planning stage. DSH sizes and configurations may vary slightly, depending on crew and mission needs.The mission is planned to launch in 2033, although it may be delayed to 2037 according to an independent report.
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Orion’s key systems were put to the test during the flight, which launched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket […] the craft hit Earth’s atmosphere as the capsule was flying through space at about 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h).
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The first orbital test flight of NASA’s Orion crew capsule will lift off on top of a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket from Cape Canaveral]s Complex 37B launch pad. The rocket will send the unmanned crew module 3,600 miles above Earth…
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In April 2019, Orion is scheduled to undergo a full-stress test of the LAS, called Ascent Abort Test 2 (AA-2), where a booster provided by Orbital ATK will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying a fully functional LAS and a 22,000-pound Orion test vehicle…
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In the Ascent Abort-2 test, NASA will verify that the Orion spacecraft’s launch abort system can steer the capsule and astronauts inside it to safety in the event of an issue with the Space Launch System rocket when the spacecraft is under the highest aerodynamic loads it will experience during ascent…
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