August 1, 2007 5:40 PM PDT

NASA to test-fly Orion spacecraft next fall

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--NASA officials said Wednesday that the space agency is on track to launch its first flight test in September 2008 of the Orion spacecraft, the successor to the space shuttle that's expected to take astronauts back to the moon by 2020.

NASA is halfway through the key portion of its contract with Lockheed Martin, which is building the spacecraft, before it begins tests at the White Sands Missile Range next fall, according to Skip Hatfield, Orion manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

"We're making great progress," Hatfield said during a press conference here at NASA Ames Research Center. The conference was organized to provide an update on the progress of NASA's development of the Orion spacecraft, as part of the Constellation Program.

Orion spacecraft

The progress report comes a week after NASA said that it's investigating sabotage of a noncritical computer due to be flown to the International Space Station aboard the space shuttle, which was cleared to lift off on Tuesday. NASA also revealed last week that it allowed inebriated astronauts to fly on at least two occasions despite their posing a flight risk.

Much of NASA's future focus these days seems to be on the Constellation Program, whether on developing the crew vehicle or testing robotic rovers that can explore uncharted craters on the moon. Once the space shuttle Endeavour is retired in 2010, Orion is slated to be the primary craft for human space exploration, taking astronauts to the ISS by 2015 and onto the moon by no later than 2020. NASA hopes to use the vehicle for other deep space missions onto Mars or an asteroid.

Hatfield said Orion will resemble the Apollo spacecraft that took three astronauts to the moon and back in 1969. Yet Orion will be much larger and capable of carrying six people in its crew capsule to the space station (four to the moon). Orion will be 16.5 feet in diameter and have a mass of about 25 tons. Inside, it will have more than two and a half times the volume of an Apollo capsule. Also, where Apollo's power system used fuel cells, Orion will use solar arrays.

"One of its obvious differences its state of the art avionics system," said Hatfield, who attributed that to advances in computing since the 1960s.

The craft will be comprised of four parts: a launch vehicle, or spacecraft adaptor that will carry the capsule into low-Earth orbit; a service module that contains an engine and pedals for aerodynamics; a crew module (in which the crew rides); and a launch abort system. This system is used to eject the crew in case of emergency on the launch pad. It will also include a set of airbags so the craft can land on solid ground.

One of the more critical elements of Orion that NASA is currently testing is heat shield materials, which are essential to vehicle protection on re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere and have failed in past missions. NASA Ames is developing and testing materials on its own, but it's also contracted with Boeing and Textron Systems to develop alternate heat-shield materials for the spacecraft. It plans to select the best of the lot, said James Reuther, leader of the Advanced Development Thermal Protection Systems Project for Orion at NASA Ames.

Reuther said the team is looking at reusing the heat-shield materials used on Apollo, a proprietary material called Avcoat. But he said the recipe for Avcoat is hard to reproduce without the scientists who initially developed it in the 1960s. Also, Orion will require a stronger material capable of withstanding heat five times stronger than that experienced in re-entry from low-Earth orbit. Given that Orion is larger than Apollo, the heat shield must also withstand a 30 percent temperature increase, he said.

Where does NASA stand on risk of the heat-shield materials for Orion? "We can handle the initial operating system of (re-entry from) low-Earth orbit," Reuther said. "On the lunar side it's a much greater challenge. We need a single heat-shield material for the lunar environment and re-entry...We're at greater risk there building a single system for both from scratch."

See more CNET content tagged:
spacecraft, shuttle, moon, craft, crew


Join the conversation!
Add your comment
So disappointing...
Did anyone in 1969 think that by now we'd have space tourism on the moon? Or at the very least some type of base there? It just seems disappointing that we're still scheduling scientific expeditions to the moon for 2020!
Posted by bblande (68 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I Agree
NASA would have been scheduling an expedition to Mars by now, but they chose not to continue a progressive program towards a moon base. To me, that makes more sense than a Earth orbit space station.
Posted by RandyWill (4 comments )
Link Flag
It's easier for politicians to be shortsighted
The problem is that it's easier to be shortsighted in politics,
whichever country you happen to be in.

It's very easy for someone to stand up and say "Well, what about
Africa?" or "What about the poor?", and it's quite hard to explain
to many people the long-term benefit of space exploration; they
just don't see it, but what they do see is the endless stream of
naysayers that are given so much coverage by the media. As a
result, space exploration is an easy place to cut the budget and
a hard place to justify (to the public) spending money.

Of course, if someone suddenly spots an asteroid heading
straight for us, our side will win the argument pretty much by
default. Unfortunately, it may be too late to do anything about it
at that point.

And I have to say, also, that the U.S. really doesn't have too
much to be ashamed of here. Sure, NASA's exploration efforts
stagnated, but that's a whole world better than the attitude the
U.K. government has historically taken to space exploration.
Posted by ajhoughton (133 comments )
Link Flag
This might sound crazy but . . . .
I still truely believe we went to the moon in the 60's . . . .
The people that claim it was a Hollywood hoax are nut jobs . . .

But . . .

Quote from the article:
"But he said the recipe for Avcoat is hard to reproduce without
the scientists who initially developed it in the 1960s"

Nobody at NASA has the recipe for a [material/coating]
developed "AND USED" almost 50 years ago?

That 40+ year old [material/coating] "is/was" better than
anything developed up to now?
"Avcoat" is a mystery [material/coating]?
NASA kept no notes?
Did the original scientists develope this [material/coating] in
secret then magically spray it on Apollo (each Apollo mission)
before lift off?

I'm 46 years old
I've been a news junky for about 25 of those years
I've always and still do believe we've been to the moon
There's a station here that shoots a beam of light at a mirror
placed there . . .

But NASA can't recreate a 40 year old [material/coating]?

What the F*+*K are the shuttles using now?
inferior [material/coating]?
inferior to 40+ year old [material/coating]?

This one small little insignificant reference in an article (on c/net
of all places) is the very 1st time I have ever had doubt about us
ever having been to the moon.

NASA keeps no records?!!!!
Posted by K.P.C. (227 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Watch "From the Earth to the Moon"
NASA relied then, as it does now, on contractors. Many of the companies that worked on the Apollo program may no longer exist, many of the engineers dead. Without the requirements of going to the moon in the last 40 years, what's the point of maintaining the technology?

I think the whole problem is that today's planners and scientists are so hell-bent on recreating Apollo in 1.3:1 scale, that they aren't thinking different or inventing brave new solutions.
Posted by janstett (43 comments )
Link Flag
To ajhoughton . . .
I agree with you.

The technology, the lives saved, the day to day benefits to
everyones lives garnered from the quest to reach the stars.

Most just don't know . . .

Velcro, fire dectors, cordless power tools, laser surgery, laser
"anything", body imaging, MRI's, digital mammography, light
emiting diodes (LED's), anyting satellite related . . .
Cel phones, GPS, weather, world wide TV instantly . . .
The "Jaws of Life" use by rescue workers to safe people trapped
in cars after an accident.

I barely even scratch the surface here.
Anybody that tells you that money spent on space technology is
wasted money is a short sighted ignorant fool.
Posted by K.P.C. (227 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sorry - typo . . .
safe = save

Posted by K.P.C. (227 comments )
Link Flag
To ajhoughton . . .and K.P.C
Lest we forget the disposable diaper, friend of baby, parent, astronaut and geezer alike! PS: It's the 21st century. For cryin' out loud, where are all the flying cars anyway?
Posted by Bigfoot & Elvis in a UFO (5 comments )
Link Flag
The Space Race is what fueled Electronics Miniaturization
The directly led to integrated circuits which permitted the development of personal computers. Without the space program, we'd still be using 1950's technology: rotary phones, mechanical adding machines, morse code, etc.
Posted by Dr_Zinj (727 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Miniaturized .......
Don't forget about Star Trek. Why else was there any reason for a "flip phone" to be developed? Without the space race we'd be stuck with two-way wrist radio's ala Dick tracy.
Posted by Bigfoot & Elvis in a UFO (5 comments )
Link Flag
ORION is a piss-poor name selection
You see, the problem is that the original Project Orion was a proposal to design a nuclear explosion fueled pulse drive for spacecraft. You can find more information on it on Wikipedia. The big point was nuclear propulsion is extremely efficient; so much so that we could literally launch an aircraftcarrier-sized ship to tour the entire solar system, take only a year to get to Pluto, and fly to Mars and back in way less time than current chemical fueled rockets.

This new Orion spacecraft NASA is talking about has nothing to do with nuclear propulsion; and isn't any more efficient than currect rockets.
Posted by Dr_Zinj (727 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Spam in a can
All jokes aside. I have for years wished the youth of this country had the same awe of going into space as I did. I'm 47 and still flying model and high power rockets, now with my 3 kids. I watched the live coverage of every launch, landing, moonwalk etc from the Gemini rendezvous to the current Shuttle/ISS missions. I saw Apollo 16 sitting on the pad many years ago (sadly never witnessed a Saturn V or a Shuttle launch). Several years ago, I discovered that I was looking at the Apollo 16 command module on display in Huntsville, AL. I felt like I had found a long lost friend. As much as I am glad we are going back to the moon, if we can't go in style in a shiney new saucer, etc, at the very least we should have a cool name to hang out hat on. Proud names like Mercury, Redstone, Atlas; Gemini, Titan II; Apollo, Saturn 1b, Saturn V, Skylab (the first manned space station was not Mir); The Space Shuttles, Pathfinder, Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, Endevour. Now, dink d dink da dinka d dink, Project Orion? Constellation? 2 separate launch systems for crew and lander? Wussies!
Posted by Bigfoot & Elvis in a UFO (5 comments )
Link Flag
Why are we going backwards?
I'm disappointed to see that we're regressing in our launch vehicle designs to Apollo capsules with a glandular problem. I know the Shuttle is overly complex and expensive, but do we have to prove the Russians right by sticking with nose capsules? Even worse, now we're going to land our capsules on LAND like the Russians do? Ugh. I was really hoping for a space plane that takes off on a runway and goes into space from the upper atmosphere.
Posted by janstett (43 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Space plane
We can only hope for a ride in the Branson / Rutan Spaceship 2 someday...
Posted by Bigfoot & Elvis in a UFO (5 comments )
Link Flag
Why? Helium 3, and it is not a waste.
The moon is chock full of Helium 3 which is a vital component in Fusion research which can and probably will result in the abandonment of nuclear fision generation of electricity.
Fusion generation does not have the drawback of leaving radioactive waste and is considered a clean "Green" source of power.
Currently Japan, China, and the USA are scheduled to go to the moon to set up a base for future missions such as space telescopes and the harvest of moon rock which is rich in Helium 3.
It just gets my goat that it's taking so damned long to do it, but in retrospect after losing two shuttle crews in "proven" craft I guess they have to take it slow and easy.
In my opinion (for what it's worth) if they intend on mining moon rock for helium 3 they can do that with robotic craft and get this program moving on the fast track.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by fred dunn (793 comments )
Reply Link Flag
STS constructed by the lowest bidder...
It is unfortunate that the shuttle was encombered by excessive redundancy in all areas except the 2 failure points. It seems that the hurrier we go the behinder we get! Redundant, redundant, redundant.... Where is the American cowboy spirit? Fly the damn thing and bring 'em home boys! Build the newer leaner cleaner next generation of reusable spacecraft and land IT on the Moon, or on Mars, or on your Mama for crying out loud! The greenies (here on Earth, not the ET's) have hobbled us to the point of no or relatively few new nuclear (nucular?) power plants. We can't build new refineries to cook up our own fuel, but WOO HOO buddy, it's man's (read that America's) fault that the planetary climate is warming. Let's run our cars on corn and get 10% less MPG even!!! What is preventing us from using hydrogen? Well they want us to put gasoline in the tank to be converted to hydrogen in the fuel cell to power our electric Yugo's (remember those?). Not me! I'm proud to be an American, driving a Japanese car, made in America... wait a second. Time to fire up the old 1985 Dodge Van!!! Besides, the Sun is going through its usual cyclical warming trend as it has forever. 20 years ago the same mealey mouths were claiming a coming ice age for the same reasons... I say get in, sit down, shut up and hang on sister...and quit "rurnin" my life! PS: still no flying cars? Phooey!
Posted by Bigfoot & Elvis in a UFO (5 comments )
Link Flag
So this is America in the 18th er 19th 21st Century?
Gee that's one small step for a bean counter and one giant step back for the U.S.

There is no vision, no imagination, no intellectual bravery in this crap. We bought the whole "gubment caint do nuttin' right" b.s. and now by golly it's become true. Congrats. This is what America has become. Land of the captive home of the chickens. Or maybe the chickens have come home to roost.

Hey we let them take the moon landing away (one of the most successful public works programs) and we bought all that crap that we the public are morons and only big corporations can save the day and make us taller too... Yeah right... We.. yeah WE went to the moon in 10 years. They (corporate America) can't even get an electric car on the road after 50 years. And "gubment caint do nuttin right.." Depends who is running it.

BTW: the Orion "visionary" test flight will be an "up and down" flight like Shepard's flight in the early 60's. Wow... and I hear there's a propellar plane on the drawing board..
Posted by dbell1998 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sometimes it's mind boggling to think that we went to the moon 40 years ago. There are young people who don't even know what to make of that.
After studying the Orion space craft, I was clearly not impressed and somewhat disappointed that we are moving backwards instead of forward. Today we lack the creativity and drive that was part of the great golden age of space exploration. From our leaders right down to the average Joe we had the determination and drive to succeed in a mission to go to the moon and even dared explore our solar system with the voyager spacecrafts. I can say that I was truly fortunate to be part of that era. Today young people are more interested in entertainment, famous rock and movie stars and focus their dreams on these false hopes.
Our politicians are no better, in fact the last governments that have ruled for the past 40 years in the US have contributed greatly to killing that dream. Wars have taken priorities over furthering our knowledge of space exploration. We should have been on Mars by now and well on our way to exploring Jupiter. Space exploration has contributed to millions of new products and medicines that have improved our everyday life. One trillion dollars could have been better spend on space exploration then on the war in Iraq. However, having said that the dream of going to the moon and beyond is dead, that will have to be left for a distant generation. Unless of course we start to dream again.

Posted by spacedreamer1948 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Well, what do you expect. The DC/X program actually was successful, and they cancelled the damn thing for Lockheed's boondoggle spaceplane that wasn't even modeled. The U.S has nothing but fools CONTROLLING the space program.
Posted by Dr_Zinj (727 comments )
Reply Link Flag

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot



RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.