NASA’s ambitions for human spaceflight haven’t been this lofty in decades. Not only do we have a pair of commercial crew vehicles in development, but NASA itself is also working on a next-generation launch platform called the Space Launch System (SLS) that will carry people from Earth to the moon and beyond. The SLS will launch NASA’s Orion crew vehicle, and it just transported that capsule to Ohio for an important round of testing before it heads into space.
Orion is based heavily on the classic Apollo command module, but it’s a fully reusable design. After parachuting to Earth, the Orion spacecraft can be refurbished and launched again on future missions. Although, the service module portion of the design (handled by the European Space Agency) does not return to Earth after each mission.
The Orion’s first major flight test will be Artemis 1, which is currently slated for launch next year. This will be an uncrewed flight, but NASA still needs to make sure the craft is going to survive the harsh conditions of space. That’s why Orion is in Ohio — NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio has the world’s largest vacuum chamber.
Orion is 16 feet wide (five meters) and 10 feet tall (3.3 meters), and it weighs about 20,000 pounds (9,300 kilograms). You can’t just FedEx it to Ohio, but NASA has an aircraft specifically for this kind of operation called the Super Guppy. The Super Guppy entered service in 1965 in order to transport pieces of the Apollo-era Saturn V rockets around the country. NASA still uses these planes today to transport large equipment like the Orion. The Super Guppy is an impressive piece of engineering in its own right. It has a maximum cruise speed of 300 mph (480 kph) and can haul 54,000 pounds (24,000 kg) of cargo.
The Plum Brook vacuum chamber takes just eight hours to go from normal Earth atmospheric pressure to a so-called “hard vacuum” that you’d find in space. It can also cool the contents of the chamber to -300 degrees Fahrenheit. There, NASA can keep the Orion capsule in space-like conditions for 60 days. After that, NASA will spend two weeks testing every system on the spacecraft to ensure it’s not susceptible to electromagnetic interference.
If the 2020 uncrewed flight goes as planned, NASA will move ahead with its human spaceflight plans using the Orion. The Artemis 2 mission in 2022 or 2023 will feature a flyby of the moon. Artemis 3 in 2024 will feature the first docking at the Lunar Gateway station, provided it’s operational by then.
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