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As 2018 begins, development is approaching completion of what is fated to be the next generation of human-operated space modules – the NASA Orion capsule. Packed with a combination of old but reliable and cutting-edge technology, the project to bring it to fruition has passed through many years of research, development and policy changes.
And, finally, after over a decade, the day is finally approaching when a craft capable of carrying humans beyond Earth’s orbit is available to use once again.
In the previous article, some of the various aspects that make the Orion ready for a trip to the Moon – or even to Mars – such as the life support and structural systems, amongst others, were covered. In this article, the last few of the essential systems of the Orion will be discussed, along with another part of the program that would be essential to the success of a Mars mission run by NASA – the Deep Space Habitat.
Orion to Mars – Part 2
At the Cutting Edge – Computers and Docking
Some of the key structural elements of the Orion crew module may be pretty similar in type to the Apollo-era modules of old, but in the fifty years hence technology has made a great many jumps. NASA, of course, has often been at the forefront of this new wave of development, and the Orion crew module looks to be no exception.
Back in the heady days of the old Space Race, computers used to take up entire rooms – indeed, one of the big features of the Apollo program was developing a computer capable of fitting inside the craft itself; in the end, the one-of-a-kind computer design that controlled the majority of the essential systems sending the Apollo astronauts to the Moon weighed seventy pounds and was around the size of a medium-sized suitcase, a big jump forward in miniaturization at the time. Now, far more computing power can be held and applied in a device the size of a wristwatch, supplying vastly more ease of use and maintenance for almost every area of management of the module.
A corollary of this advancement in computer technology is vastly increased automation – after all, the stresses of spaceflight are manifold, so being able to have at least some of the routine tasks capable of being accomplished by a computer allows more time for the crew to engage in less monotonous and more worthwhile tasks while on mission. Of course, any crew would still be trained to carry out any task manually if needed, but the additional legwork being accomplished by automated systems would be a great help, especially under the long and likely often stressful scenario of a Mars mission.
One of those key tasks is that of docking; until the development caught up with it, it was a task that had to be accomplished manually, requiring a massive amount of training of manual dexterity and spatial awareness coupled with the stress of there being very little room for error and most of the time, having to get the maneuver correct the first time, every time – having two spacecraft moving at high speed close to each other can result in problems when not handled correctly, after all. Automated systems simply could not maneuver the craft with the same accuracy that a human could. Up to and including the Space Shuttle, all NASA vehicles have involved purely manual docking procedures as their only option.
However, in recent times, with the continued development of both real-time monitoring, communication and navigation systems that enable location and control of a spacecraft in real-time at the touch of a button with no delay, the success of the auto-docking systems on the Russian Progress spacecraft and the ESA Automated Transfer Vehicle (both of which have an outstanding track record ferrying supplies to the International Space Station fully automated) has given confidence that the Orion module can enjoy similar automated docking success. While, again, in the case of an emergency the crew would be able to assume manual control and dock the craft themselves, having the mentally arduous and often lengthy yet essential task of docking in orbit at least partly taken care of by a computer would be a great help.
The advancement of computing technology is the last half-century won’t do the full work of taking a human crew to Mars…but it will certainly make it a lot easier.
The Beating Heart – Orion Service Module
Having a command module – a place where the crew can direct, control and above all live safely during any space mission is merely one part of the Orion picture. More understated, but equally important, is the part of the spacecraft that contains no crew at all – but provides the warmth they need to stay functional, the propulsion that will get them to where they need to go, and the atmosphere they need to stay alive. All of that, and more is contained in a four meter length by four meter diameter chamber directly beneath the command module…the Orion Service Module.
The Orion Service Module differs from most of the other Orion modules in one rather important regard: its construction is not only of American origin but also of considerable European input as well. In 2010, when the Constellation Program was mothballed, rather than abandon the service module out of hand and leave only the command module under construction, NASA and the ESA (European Space Agency) agreed to collaborate on developing a service module based on the existing Automated Transfer Vehicle – the workhorse responsible for many ISS resupply missions mentioned above. This gave the developers a head-start in terms of knowledge and therefore reduced costs – with the existing knowledge given by the ATV, much less development would be needed in order to bring about a service module capable of servicing all the needs of the Orion command module for the duration of a mission. Agreements were quickly reached with a variety of European and American contractors to design and build all the various components that would be required, from the solar panels providing power to the adapters that would connect the service module to the command module above and the Space Launch System below.
As is the case with most of the Orion makeup, the latest design for the Orion Service Module combines well-tested venerable technology with the latest where it would work better. For instance, the main engine for the first OSM will be an engine previously used for the space shuttle, one that has performed 89 burns over 19 different missions…but one that is reliable, proven and guaranteed to give the required performance again and again. Contrast that with the improved power generation, cutting-edge solar panels providing almost twice as much electrical power as the Apollo service module, and aluminum-lithium alloy structure meaning that the module will deliver this extra punch despite being both smaller and lighter when fully fueled than its Apollo-era equivalent. It also contains more fuel for maneuvers overall than the Apollo, and can support a crew of four for three weeks.
Only one service module is being worked on as of 2018, however, in 2017 an agreement was made to procure a second, which will become the backbone of the crucial first human flight of the Orion and will hopefully also function as the nerve center for many future missions.
Though the development of the Orion service module has, like many other areas of the project, been rocky at times, has its fair share of cutbacks, setbacks and delays…it seems, as we approach the third decade of this century, that the beating heart so long designed, cultivated, and wished for, may finally soon be ready to support mankind in its next big venture into space.
Lasting the Distance – The Deep Space Habitat
However, as is noted above, the Orion command module, backed by careful management of life support resources given by the service module, can only support a crew of four for four weeks maximum. While this would be enough for a human Moon mission, a human mission to Mars could be reliably expected to last for at least two years, and likely much longer. This, rather obviously, represents something of a shortfall. Clearly, more than just the service module is required for the purposes of keeping a human mission alive for a trip to and from Mars.
To this end, since 2012 NASA has been hard at work designing and developing a system capable of supporting a crew of several astronauts for the length of time necessary. The current solution, as touched on in a previous entry, has been proposed as the Deep Space Habitat (DSH).
The DSH would be made up of three primary parts: the Multipurpose Logistics Module (MPLM), the lab module (very similar to the Destiny-style module currently used on the International Space Station) and a stand-alone propulsion stage…just to make sure the whole thing can actually get somewhere. The Orion command module would then attach to the MPLM to complete the entire design.
The whole design of the DSH is meant to be versatile, depending on the length of the mission involved and the destination. For instance, a reasonably simple 60-day mission (used, for example, to demonstrate the capability of the design in a first run) would be made up of just those four basic modules with the Orion command module supplying command and control, the lab providing scientific capability as well as crew quarters, the MPLM providing all the supplies needed for such a mission, and the cryogenic propulsion stage getting the whole craft from A to B. For a more complex 500-day mission, however, additional extras can be attached to the MPLM – such as a second MPLM for additional supply space and (perhaps even more importantly) a design of NASA’s latest Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV). These vehicles are designed to support two crew for two weeks with their own inbuilt propulsion and life support systems, be able to maneuver either through the vacuum of space or with wheels on the ground, and are specifically designed with one purpose in mind – to land a crew on another world, whether that be the Moon, an asteroid…or Mars itself.
The scope of NASA’s ambition to use the Orion and the DSH to take humans back to the Moon and further onward is clearly not in question – the current designs, already being field-tested, are a testament to that. With that being said, however, the question then switches to when? When will NASA finally be able to send astronauts out beyond Earth orbit once again?
It has been roughly a year since this blog touched on the projected timeline for the Orion Program, and though in some regards that timeline remains as unpredictable as ever (continued funding governed by political will and inevitable schedule slips for such a big project being what they are), but some of the more immediate missions on the program have become a little clearer in the last twelve months.
The first service module will be used for the very next test of the Orion capability: the Exploration Mission 1; a full uncrewed test of the capability of the Orion craft scheduled for 2019, sending it into a four-to-six week jaunt in space, including six days orbiting the Moon – a mission very similar in design to the first Apollo mission to leave Earth orbit, Apollo 8. During this time, a wealth of information will be gathered from the multitude of instruments on the craft, verifying that it has the survivability to qualify it for the next step in the Orion program. This mission will also include a secondary payload; many different small satellites designed by a variety of different education centers and companies, with a variety of different purposes in mind once deployed – from looking for additional evidence for water ice on the Moon to demonstrating the communication ability of a satellite in an orbit around the Sun – a distance much further than all but the communication modules designed for use on the deep-space probes sent to the various Solar System.
Once that has been completed and provided it is successful to the degree demanded to progress onwards, the very next step will be to accomplish a similar mission in or around 2023…but with a full crew on board, sending humans beyond Earth orbit for the first time in what will be, at that point, over five decades. The mission will not have quite as much time in orbit the Moon as the previous mission did, but instead remain in space for anywhere between eight days and three weeks. A key part of this mission, quite apart from the achievement of venturing beyond Earth orbit again, will be the deployment of the first part of what is called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway – designed to be a staging post for almost all future Orion missions. The following human missions, to take place yearly thereafter until 2027, would involve the completion and full testing of this station, culminating with two long-term stays on the newly constructed platform. Recent announcements from NASA even hint at an acceleration of this timetable, with the first human flight taking off earlier than 2023 – though that is very much open to question right now.
With all of that accounted for, the first mission to Mars orbit is currently planned tentatively for 2036 – a flight that would bring a crew into Mars orbit and back again. With that date rather far in the future, however, it is, of course, open to speculation.
So, to answer the question at the beginning of this passage…with any luck at all, we may well see humans under the remit of NASA head, at the very least, out beyond Earth orbit again within the next five years.
Since the great days of the Apollo program there have been a number of great projects for human spaceflight conceived by NASA, designed to carry on their legacy as the trailblazer, to go from the Moon to Mars and beyond – indeed, not long after Neil Armstrong first set foot upon the Moon, the belief was widespread that humanity would set foot upon Mars before the end of the 20th Century.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, these projects have been matched by a fair number of false dawns that have kept humanity limited to our little corner of the Solar System, unable or unwilling to venture beyond for the time being. In the intervening time investigating near-Earth projects, humanity has learned much about the rigors of spaceflight, as well as developing more and more advanced technology in order to mitigate these effects on man and machine…but plans to utilize that improvement to go further have never made it beyond a purely conceptual stage.
Orion is by far the most advanced beyond-Earth program that NASA has developed since the days of Apollo. The drive to succeed is there, matched by the technology to make it happen – and that technology is being crafted, even now approaching completion, into a vehicle capable of going to the Moon, to Mars…and perhaps even beyond.
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Ross Wakefield is a freelance science writer, communicator and consultant, with specialized expertise in the field of current and historical space developments. Ross has a Bachelors degree in Physics with Astrophysics from the University of Leicester and a CMCU in Astronautics and Space Engineering from Cranfield University and is a member of the Institute of Physics and British Mensa. Ross is currently beginning a series of articles with The Mars Generation on various space-related topics. When he’s not glued to a computer screen, he enjoys playing and watching sport, reading various books and trying to find where the nearest good pool table is in the United States. Find Ross on his Twitter.