OPINION – Upcoming Flight of NASA’s Orion Spacecraft will be a Mission of Firsts and Should be Applauded

AdminCadet: The following article by NASA’s Kennedy Space Center concerning the upcoming flight test of NASA’s Orion spacecraft is very good.


Also, here is a good 2013 “infographic” by space.com (designed by Karl Tate/ Jan. 16, 2013) which explains Orion:


Quote from the first article: “The upcoming flight test of NASA’s Orion spacecraft will be a mission of firsts. This new crew vehicle, making its debut on Exploration Flight Test-1, will become the first of its kind in four decades to venture beyond low-Earth orbit. The mission also marks the first time a spacecraft designed to carry humans will be lofted to orbit by a modern-day expendable launch vehicle.  Orion, built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, will fly aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket. NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP), based at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, specializes in the management of missions flying on expendable rockets, single-use vehicles that aren’t reused. The program is providing its expertise in an advisory capacity for Orion’s first flight.”

Image one: Orion Spacecraft [Image Credit: Space.com’s info graphic “Orion Explained” by Karl Tate – Jan 16, 2013]:

Orion Capsule - 2 2013

Image two: Launch personnel in Hangar AE at KSC in a joint integrated simulation of Orion’s first test [Image Credit: NASA]:

EFT-1 Simulation in Hanger AE

Image three: Artist’s concept of the Orion Spacecraft including the service module [Image credit: NASA]:


AdminCadet:  The following reflects some of my personal thoughts on the first test of the Orion spacecraft – (these are thoughts from an old “Shuttle-hugger” looking from the outside in, not someone who is deeply familiar with the day-to-day operation of the Orion program):

One day, if all testing is successful, and America and Congress allow it, Orion’s crew module will eventually house four astronauts for deep space missions lasting up to three weeks. It will be launched on the new Space Launch System (SLS), a rocket larger and more powerful than the Apollo Program’s Saturn V.   It’s service module, built by the European Space Agency supposedly based on their current Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), will provide it with propulsion after it leaves the SLS.  It will be America’s first manned spacecraft in 40 years to take humans beyond Low Earth Orbit.  It could be a vehicle we use to go to the Moon or Mars.  The initial unmanned tests (starting with the Exploration Flight Test-1 mentioned above) are scheduled to start in 2017.  The first crewed flight, utilizing the SLS rocket, is currently scheduled for the early 2020’s possibly in association with the Asteroid Retrieval/Redirect Mission (ARM).

Some nay-sayers talk a lot about the limitations of this version of the Orion spacecraft that will be used in this first test.  They point out the lack of life support hardware and displays and controls (and the thermal control systems that go with this hardware) since it will be unmanned, they point out it may have less redundancy and less margins of safety in some areas than a manned craft should have, that this will be Lockheed’s first vehicle designed for a human crew and the risks this inexperience brings, that it will not launch during its first test on the vehicle it is ultimately designed to launch on, that the time between the test and the actual first manned flight is unbelievably long.  Finally, in an over-reaching argument, they point out that the Orion capsule design was originally built for the large SLS rocket under the now cancelled Constellation Program – it has weight limitations that could make it difficult to adapt for lunar missions utilizing other less powerful launch vehicles…

Even if you are in agreement with the criticisms above, try this on for size:   It is a very difficult time in the United States for the NASA agency to be building a new spacecraft.  This country apparently has lost much interest in human space flight (as indicated by the cancellation of both the Constellation Program and the Space Shuttle Program, and the continued under-funding of the Commercial Crew Program) and seems to be losing interest in unmanned science missions also.  Our country is worrying more about its social issues than its space program and technical excellence.  With this in mind, the fact we are even building and testing an Orion capsule is a miracle.  Any triumphs made by the Orion team are worthy of sincere congratulations!  And, no matter what any of the critics say, this upcoming test of Orion will be a momentous milestone that is very important not only for the new vehicle, but for our NASA space agency as a whole.  First, concerning the vehicle itself, this test will exercise the vehicle in the harsh environments of lift-off, spaceflight, and splash down as an integrated spacecraft for the first time (including its thermal protection system, avionics and associated cooling systems, structures, re-entry parachutes, software, operational concepts, so much more…).  It will test the US-built capsule and the ESA-built service module as an integrated spacecraft in space for the first time.  The NASA agency will also experience many “firsts” with this test:  As the KSC article above points out, it’s been a long time since the human space exploration portion of the NASA agency has ventured beyond Low Earth Orbiter (LEO – the orbit Station resides in, and the orbit the Space Shuttle launched into) with a vehicle that will eventually become man-rated.  We’ve also never launched a spacecraft developed to transport humans with today’s Delta rocket before.  And this test will utilize KSC’s launch support facilities and JSC’s mission control, adding greatly to KSC ground operational expertise with the new vehicle which will be vital in this and future missions, and giving JSC personnel needed “flight control” experience in handling a spacecraft outside of LEO.

It’s easy for nay sayers to knock a new space program.  As an old Shuttle engineer, I fall into that nasty trap all the time if I don’t catch myself.  But, just the pure grit and grizzle of getting a program started and having it continue in today’s toxic environment, the act of melding NASA and Lockheed engineers together in a common goal, the determination to do the nuts-and-bolts requirements and design work, pushing thru the inter-center politics associated with 10 NASA centers scrambling for limited budget, getting the hardware through all stages of design under ever changing budget and political constraints and “the flavor of the term” policies imposed by Washington, being wire-brushed by the Asteroid Retrieval/Redirect Mission (ARM) critics and yet still keeping the eye on the ball, getting the first vehicle built and into test at KSC, working out the multitude of technical and integration issues as each arise, and eventually (hopefully) seeing the Orion spacecraft go into space for the first time, are a series of monumental victories that should NOT be discounted by anyone who has worked in the public or private sector on any large project.

They say space flight is hard.  The stresses this country puts on its space agency make it infinitely more harder.  Anyone who can win through this quagmire deserves high praise indeed.

Best of luck Orion on your preparations for your first test.  Best of luck to JSC, KSC, and to Lockheed.  We of NASA-current and NASA-past all want you to succeed!

First Article Credit: NASA-KSC by Anna Heiney – August 19, 2014;  Second “article”/First Image Credit: Space.com by Karl Tate – Jan 16, 2013.  Second Image Credit: NASA/August 2014.  Third Image Credit: NASA/Date Unknown.


One thought on “OPINION – Upcoming Flight of NASA’s Orion Spacecraft will be a Mission of Firsts and Should be Applauded

  1. Well said, AdminCadet! I was involved with the verification testing of the software and avionics. Lockheed Martin engineering personnel are working long hours to ensure this test is successful. My hats off to theh Orion team for all their efforts!

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