Looks aside, NASA’s Orion is “lightyears ahead of what they had in Apollo”
Redundancy is key to travel "farther away than any human spacecraft has ever been.”
MICHOUD, La.—Look at NASA's high-profile Orion spacecraft, and you may get a funny feeling of familiarity. While the modern crew vehicle recently made its big screen debut in the Oscar-nominated The Martian, any lingering deja vu more likely comes from a different place. With the Orion module, there's more than a passing resemblance to its predecessor—the one from the Apollo program.
"To the untrained eye, it looks very much the same," says Jim Bray, Lockheed Martin's Director of the Orion Crew Module. Bray's been working and thinking about Orion since helping Lockheed win the contract in 2006, and even he can admit it looks "very similar" to Apollo.
"But," he says, "this is completely different."
When NASA successfully launched Orion in December 2014, it was the first time since Apollo that the organization attempted to put a spacecraft designed for manned missions beyond low-Earth orbit. That marked a 40-plus year gap. However, the Apollo program had a unique vehicle for a unique destination. “It was made to go to the Moon and to the Moon only,” Bray notes. When Orion next launches—another unmanned launch is set for 2018 (Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1) with the first manned mission currently pegged for the early 2020s (EM-2)—there won't be the same precedent.
"Orion's requirements are set so we can go to many places that aren’t pre-selected in advance," Bray tells Ars. "We’re pushing the boundaries even further. We’ll be going to the Moon, past the Moon, and we’ll be in an orbit that's farther away than any human spacecraft has ever been.”
In that light, the Orion module's looks are obviously quite deceiving. It has subtle upgrades like a temperature regulating coating and solar arrays for power rather than batteries (see Lockheed's explainer page for more). Orion's module is also 50 percent larger when compared to Apollo. There's room for four crewmembers instead of three, and each individual will have noticeably more habitable volume (78.5 ft^3 per person compared to 70ft^3). Apollo 8, for instance, didn't have room for a galley and waste management system. That's a luxury that will be afforded to those in Orion.
Bray notes the Orion spacecraft will also be 100 percent heavier when landing due to its system redundancies, a key upgrade for NASA's next round of manned spaceflight. "It's lightyears ahead of what they had in Apollo," Bray says. "In fact, some of the critical failure modes for Apollo—if one of their engines didn’t light, they weren’t coming home. In Orion's case, we’ve got a redundant set of engines. If one set failed, another set will back them up. Redundancy is critically important with this." While previous shuttles stayed roughly 220 nautical miles from the Earth, this type of design will allow Orion will go thousands or hundreds of thousands of miles away from Earth—with larger crews for longer durations.
All of this grandiose hardware, like nearly all NASA gear, passed through the greater New Orleans area recently. Orion directly benefited from the Michoud Assembly Facility's uniquely accurate tooling, and the spacecraft features some of the site's signature welding. When Ars visited the Michoud in late 2015, we were able to see both the Orion pathfinder (essentially a highly detailed mockup used solely for testing) and early manufacturing work on the Orion flight article.
This is NASA's engineering redundancy mindset at its extreme. Bray notes the pathfinder will allow Lockheed and NASA to test every last detail between the manufacturing processes and the hardware itself "so that we know when we do the flight article, everything works as planned." It's a clear upgrade over how things had been done before. With the shuttle program, Bray says, the system launched for the first time with human on boards ("It's an incredibly risky thing," he emphasizes just in case it wasn't clear).
Since our trip, the Orion crew module pressure vessel left the site and ventured down to the nearby Kennedy Space Center. It's now undergoing more testing and processing so that it can make its way atop the Space Launch System for that 2018 target. But more work continues at Michoud in the interim, and ultimately the site will have a hand in all three phases of Orion—its crew module, service module, and launch abort system. (Even though European space agencies assisted with making the service module, elements of it also come from Michoud).
“You don’t think of New Orleans as being a high-tech community," Bray says. "But this is as high-tech as it gets.”