Image: full-scale Orion mockup
Workers lower a full-scale Orion mockup onto the crew module holding structure during an assembly pathfinding maneuver at the Operations & Checkout Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
updated 9/28/2010 4:45:01 PM ET 2010-09-28T20:45:01

NASA's new Orion space capsule is steadily coming together in preparation for a 2013 test flight, even though neither its funding nor its mission is set in stone.

The capsule's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, is gearing up its Orion production facility in Florida, says it can complete a working version by the end of 2012 and is even drawing up its own scenario for flying the spacecraft to an asteroid.

Orion was originally envisioned to be part of the Constellation program, NASA's successor to the space shuttles. The 21,000-pound (9,500-kg) capsule would have been used to send astronauts back to the moon and to ferry people and supplies to and from the International Space Station.

However, in his 2011 budget proposal, President Barack Obama called for canceling Constellation and urged NASA to work instead toward sending humans to an asteroid, then to Mars.

Obama later recommended continuing the development of Orion — but only as an escape craft that could carry astronauts home from the space station in an emergency. More recently, bills in both the House and Senate have called for Orion to be revived. The House is expected to vote on a bill for NASA's future plans Wednesday (Sept. 29).

Amid all this uncertainty, NASA's prime contractor for Orion, Lockheed Martin, is carrying on. The company, which secured the NASA contract in 2006, continues to build the spaceship, test its various components and plan out some of Orion's possible missions.

All of this is in preparation for a test launch in 2013 that may or may not take place.

"We're highly confident that's going to happen," Cleon Lacefield, the Lockheed vice president who is Orion program manager, told "We've made a lot of progress. We've stayed on schedule and on budget."

Building through the uncertainty
Lockheed Martin started up mock manufacturing and assembly procedures for Orion this month (September) at a facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Image: Orion launch abort vehicle
Army White Sands Test Facility
Technicians ready the Orion launch abort vehicle for a May 6 test at the U.S. Army White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico.

The activities, which use a full-scale model of the space capsule, are a test run to make sure everything checks out before a spacebound Orion capsule is built at the facility, officials said.

Orion already has passed several milestones. A May test, for example, successfully demonstrated the spacecraft's abort system — a set of rocket motors that can pull the capsule away from its rocket if anything goes wrong during launch.

In July, Orion's design passed the Phase 1 safety review of NASA's Human Rating Requirements, a rigorous examination to make sure the capsule's design was sound for carrying people.

And, at a facility in Louisiana, Lockheed Martin is putting the finishing touches on a test version of Orion's crew module, Lacefield said.

Engineers will soon start putting the craft through its paces, to make sure everything works and is structurally sound.

"We'll complete all fabrication and assembly work by December," Lacefield said. "This is our ground-test article, which we could actually fly if we wanted to."

This vehicle will be ready for acoustic and vibration testing by spring, according to Lacefield. After that will come a series of drop tests, which will further gauge the craft's structural integrity.

"We'll go and drop it in the water nine times," Lacefield said.

Getting off the launch pad
Lockheed anticipates completing construction of Orion I — the first actual spaceworthy capsule — in about two years.

"It'll be complete by the end of 2012, so we can fly sometime in the summer of 2013," Lacefield said.

Whether Orion will launch is not the only question. Another is how it will get off the launch pad. It was originally designed to sit atop an Ares I rocket, a next-generation booster planned under Constellation.

The Obama administration's budget proposal puts Ares I — and its heavy-lift sibling, Ares V — on the chopping block. Though some lawmakers are trying to restore funding for Ares, the rockets' fate remains up in the air.

Still, Orion should be fine regardless of what happens with Ares, Lockheed Martin officials said.

Image: 'Plymouth Rock' asteroid mission
Lockheed Martin
This artist's illustration depicts a 'Plymouth Rock' asteroid mission with astronauts and NASA's Orion spacecraft as envisioned by Lockheed Martin.

"It's possible to make Orion compatible with other launch vehicles," said Josh Hopkins, a principal investigator in the company's Advanced Human Exploration Missions division. "It doesn't actually look all that hard."

Past studies have found current large rockets like the expendable Delta 4 Heavy and Atlas 5 boosters to be possible stand-ins for Orion launch vehicles.

Deep space version
In the Constellation program, Orion would have ferried a six-member crew to and from the space station, and a four-member crew to and from the moon. Though the new national space plan nixes the moon missions in favor of visits to asteroids — which would serve as stepping stones to a Mars trip — Orion could still carry the load, Lockheed Martin officials say.

In fact, the company is mapping out a manned asteroid mission involving Orion that it is calling " Plymouth Rock." This work, still in its early stages, is not part of any NASA contract, Hopkins said.

"We're still in the conceptual-study phase right now," he told "What we end up doing is contingent on what NASA decides to do."

The Plymouth Rock concept would require turning the baseline Orion capsule into an Orion Deep Space Vehicle, but the upgrades wouldn't be too difficult, Hopkins said. The capsule is already designed to endure six-month missions, so it would be amply protected from the radiation, micrometeorites and solar flares it would encounter during an asteroid visit, he added.

The main change Plymouth Rock would require is one of size. An asteroid mission would require more room for supplies, equipment and experiment space, Hopkins said.

So Plymouth Rock — probably involving two astronauts — would use two Orion capsules joined together, he said, or it would mate one capsule with a larger habitat module.

Other changes would be minor, Hopkins said.

For example, the spacecraft's exterior would likely have to be adjusted to allow astronauts to affix jet packs to it. They would use the packs to make longer, more elaborate spacewalks.

Pushing outward
An asteroid mission would serve a number of functions, Hopkins said. It would help NASA prepare for a journey to Mars, and it could help scientists understand how planets form around other stars.

"Asteroids are the record, essentially, of the early formation of the solar system," Hopkins said.

Asteroids may contain valuable resources, such as platinum, that could be mined and exploited. And there are other motivations for studying the space rocks.

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"Asteroids can hit Earth," Hopkins said. "We need to understand what they're made of and how they're put together. That knowledge could be really important if we ever need to deflect one."

Hopkins reckons there are three or four good asteroid-visiting windows between now and 2030, with the earliest conceivable launch date sometime in 2019. Though Orion engineers are still waiting to learn the spaceship's fate, they'll continue to build the baseline capsule and plan out its deep-space version.

"We think it's important to plan a mission sooner rather than later," Hopkins said. "That way we can keep up our momentum."

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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