The NASA Orion spacecraft took an important step toward one day ferrying astronauts to Mars last week, as Lockheed Martin powered on the ship’s onboard computers for the first time.

The Orion is NASA’s planned replacement for the long retired space shuttle, and is intended to serve as America’s primary space-based personnel carrier in the years to come.  Once coupled with NASA’s SLS (Space Launch System) rocket platform, which is expected to be the most powerful rocket NASA has ever fielded, the Orion is expected to carry astronauts on a planned mission to Mars in the 2030s, and potentially, even further.  However, before the ship can start making history, it must first prove its systems can function properly.  The powering up of the vessel’s primary computers last Tuesday served as an important step toward that short-term goal.

“This is the brains and heart of the spacecraft,” said Lockheed spokesperson Gary Napier. He added that the inaugural power-up appeared to go “very well.”

The Orion capsule is expected to have even more computer systems installed over the next two months, with a planned (unmanned) test flight around the moon tentatively scheduled for 2019.  These deadlines, however, have often been pushed back, as NASA has struggled to meet the timetables they’ve laid out for both the Orion, and the SLS platform slated to carry it.

“Although astronauts will not fly in this capsule on this flight, a large majority of the [tech is] the same design that astronauts will rely on during following missions with Orion into the solar system,” Lockheed said in a statement.  It makes sense that NASA would first field the craft without risking a crew, though President Trump had previously recommended that they crew the flight in order to expedite the testing process.

Theoretically, the Orion should be able to function entirely autonomously throughout its voyage around the moon, as a crew would also need to rely on the Orion’s guidance systems to manage much of their own voyage to distant destinations like the red planet.  The moon is a formidable 238,900 miles away, but to reach Mars, where Orion’s sights are currently set, it will need to cover a massive 33.9 million miles each way.  At such massive distances in space where course corrections must be made in three dimensions, making it to Mars and back is the type of word problem even math teachers might cringe at approaching, but the Orion needs to be capable of doing that, and much more, simultaneously.

Orion was designed from the beginning to take humanity farther into space than we’ve ever gone,” Mike Hawes, the Orion program manager at Lockheed, said in a statement. “Everyone on the team understands how crucial this test campaign is, and more importantly, what this spacecraft and mission means to our country and future human space flight.”

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Of course, the Orion and SLS are not without their critics.  Many have drawn attention to the rapid advancements made by private organizations like SpaceX, stating that the slowly progressing capsule and platform NASA intends to field has taken too long and cost too much, with months, or even years, remaining before the American people can expect to see it take to the sky with a crew of its own.  SpaceX, on the other hand, intends to begin ferrying people into space next year, and has already been making regular deliveries to the International Space Station with its own reusable rockets.

NASA fans and supporters, however, counter that the Orion, and its massive engine platform the SLS, the largest rocket on American soil since the Saturn V, will offer far more capability than what we’ve seen fielded by private companies.  NASA is, after all, the only organization on the planet to ever successfully deliver human beings to another celestial body, at least for now.

Whether or not NASA can draw on its experience from the golden age of space flight America enjoyed during the Gemini and Apollo era to make a more capable vessel for tomorrow is yet to be seen, but one thing’s for sure, when it comes to the competition between NASA, and private ventures like Blue Horizon or SpaceX, as well as rapidly advancing technologies out of newcomers to the space race like China and India, the future is looking bright for space exploration and travel.

 

Image courtesy of NASA