The Orion spacecraft may look like its 40-plus-year-old Apollo predecessor, but — like a modified car — its innards have been stripped and replaced with modern technology that will enable NASA’s newest space mobile to send humans further than ever before, experts said Wednesday.
Mike Hawes, Orion’s program manager for Lockheed Martin, said a capsule that could carry up to six astronauts has the same shape as Apollo because the original designers got it right.
“The physics are the same of going out and coming back at higher speeds,” he said. “The technology is all totally different. The computers are dozens of times faster than the (International Space Station). They’re thousands of times faster than Apollo. Apollo actually flew on 8K memory machines and, I think, it was 1 megahertz.”
NASA partnered with Lockheed Martin to launch an Orion spacecraft Dec. 5, Exploration Test Flight-1 (EFT-1). The last time NASA sent a spacecraft meant to hold humans out of lower Earth orbit was 43 years ago in Apollo 17.
Once the agency perfects Orion, it will be able to carry four astronauts in deep space for up to 21 days. The objective is to enable people to explore destinations such as asteroids and eventually Mars.
Hawes and Mark Geyer, Orion project manager at the Johnson Space Center, visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Wednesday to thank a team of 15 JPL’ers who contributed to the December test flight. They also shared lessons learned from the test flight with the larger JPL community as well as talked about to expect next.
The next Orion mission will be Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), which is scheduled for September 2018, Geyer said. Then in 2021, NASA will send a crewed flight into high lunar orbit for a flyby meant to last at least a few days, he said.
EFT-1 cost $370 million. Some of the materials such as the Orion spacecraft itself will be reused in future missions. The federal government has budgeted $1.1 billion a year for a series of Orion missions that could one day help put footprints on Mars, Geyer said.
Like Apollo, Orion uses a crew model plated with Avcoat, a material that could withstand extreme temperature changes. Although the substance carries the same name, Hawes said new discoveries and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency restrictions have changed Avcoat’s composition.
“If you think about Apollo, I didn’t know as a kid, but we only visited the equator of the moon — a very small part,” Geyer said. “Orion enables missions to go to the rest of the moon. It enables missions to go to these asteroids. It enables missions to go to Mars, and it’s the first piece to get the crew up safe and back.”
NASA's Space Launch System (SLS)
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