In early December, NASA will take an important step into the future with the first flight test of the Orion spacecraft — the first vehicle in history capable of taking humans to multiple destinations in deep space. And while this launch is an un-crewed test, it will be the first peek at how NASA has revamped itself since the end of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011.
While the space shuttle achieved many ground-breaking accomplishments, it was limited to flights in low-Earth orbit (approx. 250 miles high). Its major goal, over the program’s last 10 years, was to launch and assemble the International Space Station, where the risks and challenges of long duration human space flight can be addressed and retired. With the ISS construction complete, NASA is in the process of handing over supply and crew transportation missions to private industry, so NASA can focus on what’s next – deep space exploration. And this first flight test of Orion is a significant milestone on the path to get us there.
While this launch is an important step to taking humans farther than we’ve ever gone before, it is important to note that it also reflects the fact that, after 30 years of space shuttle missions dominating its human spaceflight activities, NASA has reevaluated everything – from its rockets and launch facilities to how it designs and manages its programs. NASA has now infused innovation and flexibility into everything it does.
With the Orion spacecraft, NASA wanted to develop a vehicle that could fly for decades with the flexibility to visit different destinations and safely return astronauts to Earth as the nation’s exploration goals evolve. As capable as the Apollo capsule was, the longest round trip mission to the Moon took 12 days. Orion is designed as a long-duration spacecraft that will allow us to undertake human missions to Mars – a two year round trip.
Innovation and flexibility are also evident with the ground infrastructure. At Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, NASA has eliminated the ground systems and launch pads that were built specifically for the space shuttle. They have developed a “clean pad” approach that can be used by a variety of launch vehicles. The new streamlined infrastructure will be much more cost-efficient, reducing the time for on-the-pad processing from 30 days, the space shuttle’s timeline, to just five to six days.
The key to launching Orion on deep space exploration missions is NASA’s new “super rocket.” Known as the Space Launch System (SLS), it will be the most powerful rocket in history.
As a nation, the U.S. has not sent crews beyond low Earth orbit since the last Apollo crew walked on the Moon in 1972. With Orion and SLS, America will have the fundamental capabilities to support missions taking the next steps into deep space, and with innovation and flexibility at the foundation of these programs, NASA is literally building a “Highway” for deep space exploration that will be sustainable for decades to come.