Space Vehicle Orion Under Construction
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Space Vehicle Orion Under Construction

NASA's newest spacecraft, Orion, is under construction. Designed for a variety of missions, Orion's old school looks belie modern technologies.

As the space shuttle winds down next month, NASA continues working on the next generation of manned spacecraft. The Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) will take on the task of moving people into space.

Where the shuttle was a spaceplane, designed to launch into space like a rocket but return on wings like an airplane, the MPCV is strictly a space capsule. It’s designed to get pushed into orbit by a conventional rocket, complete its mission, and then drop back to Earth on its back, like the Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury capsules of old, drifting smoothly and gently home beneath a trio of parachutes after the initial, fiery descent.

The MPCV looks like an update to old school technology. The smooth black sides of the capsule recall mixtures of Mercury and Apollo shapes and colors, but the curved and contoured finish betray the 40+ years of manned spaceflight experience that has gone into its design.

The Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, NASA’s name for the MPCV, will serve as the backbone of the Beyond LEO (Low Earth Orbit) exploration programs to within this decade. Easy to launch and recover though she may be, she’s designed to comfortably carry a crew of three as far as Mars. And she’s designed to lash up to a wide variety of exploration vehicles to carry with her. Orion will be the crew component of a wide variety of spacecraft, each designed for a specific exploration task.

The Constellation Program, NASA’s over-arching space exploration design, calls for a number of mission-specific vehicles to be place in orbit above the earth. Orion, using experience gained during the Gemini, Apollo, and shuttle programs, will dock and connect with these vehicles and travel with them to their destinations.

Those destinations include the delivery of robotic rovers for the moon and Mars, orbiting communications stations for both bodies, and, eventually, manned vehicles to land on both the moon and Mars. The Constellation Program calls for men walking on the moon by the year 2020.

An interesting sidebar to the Constellation Program is its inclusion of commercial rocket and system development alongside federally-funded programs. While new federally-designed launch systems, under the names Ares and Altair, are under development to deliver the Orion and her associated hardware into orbit, a number of private companies are feverishly working to deliver reliable, affordable hardware as well.

The first Orion capsule is under construction in Colorado right now. Although launch dates still remain far, far in the future, she’s already passed several critical design tests. Her construction signals an era of exciting planetary exploration that is just about to debut.

You can learn more at NASA’s Constellation page.

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