For the first time in a generation, NASA is building a human spacecraft for deep-space missions that will usher in a new era of space exploration. A series of increasingly challenging missions awaits, and this new spacecraft will take astronauts farther than they’ve gone before, including to the Moon and Mars.

The Crew Capsule: Orion

Drawing on more than 50 years of spaceflight research and development, the Orion spacecraft is designed to meet the evolving needs of NASA’s deep space exploration program for decades to come. It will be the safest, most advanced spacecraft ever built, and will be flexible and capable enough to travel to a variety of destinations. Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry a crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain astronauts during their missions, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.

For the first time in almost 40 years, a NASA human-rated rocket has completed all steps needed to clear a critical design review. The Space Launch System (SLS) is the first exploration-class rocket since the Saturn V. (NASA/MSFC)

Orion features dozens of technology advancements and innovations including both crew and service modules, a spacecraft adaptor, and a revolutionary launch abort system that will significantly increase crew safety. Orion’s unique life support, propulsion, thermal protection, and avionics systems — in combination with other elements — will enable extended-duration deep space missions. These systems have been developed to facilitate integration of new technical innovations as they become available in the future.

To first lift SLS to orbit, two solid rocket boosters, along with the core stage engines, produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust. So the rocket doesn’t have to carry all the weight of the boosters and the core stage to the Moon, they separate from the rocket. Then, the rocket’s upper stage provides power to send payloads on to more distant destinations. The Block 1 configuration, shown here, is capable of sending more than 57,000 pounds — about the weight of 12 fully grown elephants — to the Moon.

Multiple Apollo-derived technologies are being extended to the scale required for the Orion crewed exploration vehicle. Some of those capabilities, including skip entry guidance, will be employed for the first time in a flight implementation. Thermal Protection System (TPS) technologies developed for Apollo and the space shuttle are being recycled or re-qualified for current human spacecraft concepts. Recent development of ablative materials, primarily in support of Orion, has resulted from NASA efforts to revive the Apollo-era TPS. A woven TPS-derived material has been developed to meet Orion’s needs for a multifunctional (structural and TPS) compression pad.

Orion has been rigorously tested as engineers prepare it for a journey beyond low-Earth orbit. Most of the major manufacturing for the first mission is complete and this year, teams will focus on final assembly, integration, and testing, as well as early work for future missions. NASA is focused on launching the first mission, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), in 2020 that will send Orion on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on an uncrewed test flight before sending crew around the Moon and back on the second mission, Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) by 2023.

Engineers will continue outfitting and testing the crew module, including pressuring the capsule to verify its structural integrity, powering it on for the first time to ensure it can route commands properly, and routing electrical and propulsion lines. Teams will also perform welding for the environmental control system and fit it for the outer back shells and heatshield. In preparation for EM-2, NASA is also testing the spacecraft’s launch abort system to demonstrate that it can carry the crew to safety if an emergency were to happen on the way to space.

Orion will utilize advances in propulsion, communications, life support, structural design, navigation, and power. With destinations including near-Earth asteroids, the Moon, the moons of Mars, and eventually Mars itself, Orion will carry astronauts into a new era of exploration.

The Rocket: Space Launch System (SLS)

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is an advanced launch vehicle that provides the foundation for human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit. With its unprecedented power and capabilities, SLS is the only rocket that can send Orion, astronauts, and large cargo to the Moon on a single mission. Offering more payload mass, volume capability, and energy to speed missions through space than any current launch vehicle, SLS is designed to be flexible and evolvable, and will open new possibilities for payloads including robotic scientific missions to places like the Moon, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter.

(Left) Interior of the Orion Medium Fidelity Mockup at Johnson Space Center in Houston. (Right) Spacesuit engineers demonstrate how four crewmembers would be arranged for launch inside Orion. (NASA/Robert Markowitz)

The SLS is NASA’s first exploration-class rocket built since the Saturn V. To fill future needs, SLS will evolve into increasingly more powerful configurations. SLS will provide the power to help Orion reach a speed of at least 24,500 mph needed to break out of low-Earth orbit and travel to the Moon. That is about 7,000 mph faster than the International Space Station travels around Earth. To reduce cost and development time, NASA is using proven hardware from the space shuttle and other exploration programs while making use of cutting-edge tooling and manufacturing technology. Some parts of the rocket are completely new; other parts of the rocket have been upgraded with modern features that meet the needs of challenging deep space missions.

Every SLS configuration uses the core stage with four RS-25 engines. The first SLS vehicle, Block 1, can send more than 26 metric tons (57,000 pounds) to orbits beyond the Moon. It will be powered by twin five-segment solid rocket boosters and four RS-25 liquid propellant engines. After reaching space, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) sends Orion on to the Moon.

The next planned evolution of the SLS, the Block 1B crew vehicle, will use a new, more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) to enable more ambitious missions. The Block 1B vehicle can, in a single launch, carry the Orion crew vehicle along with exploration systems like a deep space habitat module. The Block 1B crew vehicle can send approximately 37 metric tons (81,571 pounds) to deep space including Orion and its crew.

The next SLS configuration, Block 2, will provide 11.9 million pounds of thrust and will be the workhorse vehicle for sending cargo to the Moon, Mars, and other deep space destinations. SLS Block 2 will be designed to lift more than 45 metric tons (99,000 pounds) to deep space. An evolvable design provides the nation with a rocket able to pioneer new human spaceflight missions.

The Boeing Company in Huntsville, AL is building the SLS core stage, including the avionics that will control the vehicle during flight. Towering more than 200 feet with a diameter of 27.6 feet, the core stage will store 730,000 gallons of super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that will fuel the RS-25 engines. The core stage is being built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans using state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment including a friction-stir-welding tool that is the largest of its kind in the world.

All major structures are built and are being outfitted for EM-1, and Boeing has started building structures for EM-2. The SLS avionics computer software is being developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, CA, is upgrading an inventory of 16 RS-25 space shuttle engines to SLS performance requirements including a new engine controller, nozzle insulation, and required operation at 512,000 pounds of thrust. During the flight, the four engines provide around two million pounds of thrust. The engines for EM-1 are built, tested, and ready for attachment to the core stage.

Two shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters will be used for the initial flights of the SLS. To provide the additional power needed for the rocket, the prime contractor for the boosters — Northrop Grumman of Redondo Beach, CA — modified the original shuttle configuration of four propellant segments to a five-segment version. The design includes new avionics, propellant design, and case insulation and eliminates the recovery parachutes.


Built to Explore

SLS Launch Simulation

Inside the Orion Spacecraft