Orion (spacecraft)

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV) is a class of partially reusable spacecraft used in NASA's human spaceflight programs. Consisting two components – a Crew Module (CM) manufactured by Lockheed Martin, and a European Service Module (ESM) manufactured by Airbus Defence and Space – the spacecraft are designed to support crewed exploration beyond low Earth orbit. Orion is equipped with solar power, an automated docking system, and glass cockpit interfaces modeled after those used in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and can support a crew of six up to 21 days undocked and up to six months docked. A single AJ10 engine provides the spacecraft's primary propulsion, while eight R-4D-11 engines and six pods of custom reaction control system engines developed by Airbus provide the spacecraft's secondary propulsion. Although compatible with other launch vehicles, Orion is primarily designed to launch atop a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, with a tower launch escape system.

Orion Spacecraft
The Orion spacecraft for Artemis 1, December 1st 2019
ManufacturerLockheed Martin
Airbus Defence and Space
ApplicationsCrewed exploration beyond LEO[2]
Spacecraft typeCrewed
Design life21.1 days[3]
Launch massCrew module: 22,900 lb (10,400 kg) [4]
Service module: 34,085 lb (15,461 kg) [4]
Total (with launch abort system): 73,735 lb (33,446 kg) [4]
Injected lunar mass: 58,467 lb (26,520 kg) [4]
Dry massCrew module: 20,500 lb (9,300 kg) landing weight [4]
Service module: 13,635 lb (6,185 kg) [4]
Payload capacity220 lb (100 kg) return payload [4]
Crew capacity2–6[5]
VolumePressurized: 690.6 cu ft (20 m3)[4]
Habitable: 316 cu ft (9 m3)
Length10 feet 10 inches (3.30 m)
Diameter16 feet 6 inches (5.03 m)
StatusIn production
Maiden launchDecember 5, 2014
Related spacecraft
Derived from

Orion was conceived by Lockheed Martin as a proposal for the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) to be used in NASA's Constellation program. Lockheed Martin's proposal defeated a competing proposal by Northrop Grumman, and was selected by NASA in 2006 to be the CEV. Originally designed with a service module featuring a new "Orion Main Engine" and a pair of circular solar panels, the spacecraft was to be launched atop the Ares I rocket with the Max Launch Abort System equipped. Following the cancellation of the Constellation program in 2010, Orion was heavily redesigned for use in NASA's Journey to Mars initiative; later named Moon to Mars. The SLS replaced the Ares I as Orion's primary launch vehicle, and the service module was replaced with a design based on the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle. A development test article of Orion's CM was launched in 2014 during Exploration Flight Test-1. As of 2019, two Orion spacecraft are under construction, with an additional two ordered,[lower-alpha 1] for use in NASA's Artemis program – the first of these is due to be launched in 2020 during Artemis 1.

Spacecraft description

Orion uses the same basic configuration as the Apollo command and service module (CSM) that first took astronauts to the Moon, but with an increased diameter, updated thermal protection system, and a host of other modern technologies. It will be capable of supporting long-duration deep space missions with up to 21 days of active crew time plus 6 months quiescent spacecraft life.[8] During the quiescent period crew life support would be provided by another module, such as the proposed Deep Space Habitat. The spacecraft's life support, propulsion, thermal protection, and avionics systems can be upgraded as new technologies become available.[9]

The Orion spacecraft includes both crew and service modules, and a spacecraft adapter. The Orion's crew module is larger than Apollo's and can support more crew members for short or long-duration missions. The European service module propels and powers the spacecraft as well as storing oxygen and water for astronauts.

Crew module (CM)

The Orion crew module (CM) is a reusable transportation capsule that provides a habitat for the crew, provides storage for consumables and research instruments, and contains the docking port for crew transfers.[9][10][11] The crew module is the only part of the spacecraft that returns to Earth after each mission and is a 57.5° truncated cone shape with a blunt spherical aft end, 5.02 meters (16 ft 6 in) in diameter and 3.3 meters (10 ft 10 in) in length,[12] with a mass of about 8.5 metric tons (19,000 lb). It was manufactured by the Lockheed Martin Corporation.[13] It will have 50% more volume than the Apollo capsule and will carry four to six astronauts.[14] After extensive study, NASA has selected the Avcoat ablator system for the Orion crew module. Avcoat, which is composed of silica fibers with a resin in a honeycomb made of fiberglass and phenolic resin, was formerly used on the Apollo missions and on the Space Shuttle orbiter for early flights.[15]

Orion's CM will use advanced technologies, including:

  • Glass cockpit digital control systems derived from those of the Boeing 787.[16]
  • An "autodock" feature, like those of Progress, the Automated Transfer Vehicle, and Dragon 2, with provision for the flight crew to take over in an emergency. Prior US spacecraft have all been docked by the crew.
  • Improved waste-management facilities, with a miniature camping-style toilet and the unisex "relief tube" used on the Space Shuttle.
  • A nitrogen/oxygen (N
    ) mixed atmosphere at either sea level (101.3 kPa or 14.69 psi) or reduced (55.2 to 70.3 kPa or 8.01 to 10.20 psi) pressure.
  • Far more advanced computers than on prior crew vehicles.

The CM will be built of aluminium-lithium alloy. The reusable recovery parachutes will be based on the parachutes used on both the Apollo spacecraft and the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters, and will be constructed of Nomex cloth. Water landings will be the exclusive means of recovery for the Orion CM.[17][18]

To allow Orion to mate with other vehicles, it will be equipped with the NASA Docking System. The spacecraft will employ a Launch Escape System (LES) along with a "Boost Protective Cover" (made of fiberglass), to protect the Orion CM from aerodynamic and impact stresses during the first 2 12 minutes of ascent. Its designers claim that the MPCV is designed to be 10 times safer during ascent and reentry than the Space Shuttle.[19] The CM is designed to be refurbished and reused. In addition, all of Orion's component parts have been designed to be as modular as possible, so that between the craft's first test flight in 2014 and its projected Mars voyage in the 2030s, the spacecraft can be upgraded as new technologies become available.[9]

As of 2019, the Spacecraft Atmospheric Monitor is planned to be used in the Orion CM.[20]

European service module (ESM)

In May 2011 the ESA director general announced a possible collaboration with NASA to work on a successor to the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV).[21] On June 21, 2012, Airbus Defence and Space announced that they had been awarded two separate studies, each worth €6.5 million, to evaluate the possibilities of using technology and experience gained from ATV and Columbus related work for future missions. The first looked into the possible construction of a service module which would be used in tandem with the Orion CM.[22] The second examined the possible production of a versatile multi purpose orbital vehicle.[23]

On November 21, 2012, the ESA decided to develop an ATV-derived service module for Orion.[24] The service module is being manufactured by Airbus Defence and Space in Bremen, Germany.[25] NASA announced on January 16, 2013, that the ESA service module will first fly on Artemis 1, the debut launch of the Space Launch System.[26]

Testing of the European service module began in February 2016, at the Space Power Facility.[27]

On February 16, 2017, a €200m contract was signed between Airbus and the European Space Agency for the production of a second European service module for use on the first crewed Orion flight, Artemis 2.[28]

Launch Abort System (LAS)

In the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during ascent, a Launch Abort System (LAS) will separate the crew module from the launch vehicle using three solid rocket motors: an abort motor (AM),[29] an attitude control motor (ACM), and a jettison motor (JM). The AM provides the thrust needed to accelerate the capsule, while the ACM is used to point the AM[30] and the jettison motor separates the LAS from the crew capsule.[31] On July 10, 2007, Orbital Sciences, the prime contractor for the LAS, awarded Alliant Techsystems (ATK) a $62.5 million sub-contract to "design, develop, produce, test and deliver the launch abort motor," which uses a "reverse flow" design.[32] On July 9, 2008, NASA announced that ATK had completed construction of a vertical test stand at a facility in Promontory, Utah to test launch abort motors for the Orion spacecraft.[33] Another long-time space motor contractor, Aerojet, was awarded the jettison motor design and development contract for the LAS. As of September 2008, Aerojet has, along with team members Orbital Sciences, Lockheed Martin and NASA, successfully demonstrated two full-scale test firings of the jettison motor. This motor is used on every flight, as it pulls the LAS tower away from the vehicle after both a successful launch and a launch abort.[34]


The Orion MPCV was announced by NASA on May 24, 2011.[35] Its design is based on the Crew Exploration Vehicle from the cancelled Constellation program.[36] The command module is being built by Lockheed Martin at the Michoud Assembly Facility,[37] while the Orion service module is being built by Airbus Defence and Space with funding from the European Space Agency.[26][38]

The MPCV's first uncrewed test flight (EFT-1) was launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket on December 5, 2014, and lasted 4 hours and 24 minutes before landing at its target in the Pacific Ocean.[39][40][41][42]

Funding history and planning

For fiscal years 2006 through 2018, the Orion expended funding totaling $15,983 million in nominal dollars. This is equivalent to $18,138 million adjusting to 2018 dollars using the NASA New Start Inflation Indices.[43]

Fiscal year Funding
(USD, millions)
Line item name
2006 839.2 CEV[44]
2007 714.5 CEV[45]
2008 1,174.1 CEV[46]
2009 1,747.9 CEV[46]
2010 1,640 CEV[46]
2011 1,196.0 MPCV[47]
2012 1,200 Orion MPCV[48]
2013 1,138 Orion MPCV[49]
2014 1,197 Orion Program[50]
2015 1,190.2 Orion Program[51]
2016 1,270 Orion Program[52]
2017 1,350.0 Orion[53]
2018 1,350.0 Orion[54]
2019 unknown unknown
2006-2018 Total $15,983

Excluded from the prior Orion costs are:

  1. Costs "for production, operations, or sustainment of additional crew capsules, despite plans to use and possibly enhance this capsule after 2021"[55]
  2. Costs of the first service module and spare parts, which are provided by ESA[56] for the test flight of Orion in 2020 (about US$1 billion)[57]
  3. Costs to assemble, integrate, prepare and launch the Orion and its launcher (funded under the NASA Ground Operations Project,[58] currently about $400M[59] per year)
  4. Costs of the launcher, the SLS, for the Orion spacecraft

For 2019 to 2023, NASA estimated[60] yearly budgets for Orion range from $1.1 to $1.2 billion. In late 2015, the Orion program was assessed at a 70% confidence level for its first crewed flight by 2023.[61][62][63]

There are no NASA estimates for the Orion program recurring yearly costs once operational, for a certain flight rate per year, or for the resulting average costs per flight. In 2016, the NASA manager of exploration systems development said that Orion, SLS, and supporting ground systems should cost "US$2 billion or less" annually.[64] NASA will not provide the cost per flight of Orion and SLS, with associate administrator William H. Gerstenmaier stating “costs must be derived from the data and are not directly available. This was done by design to lower NASA's expenditures” in 2017.[65]

Test articles and mockups

  • Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF) in Johnson Space Center, includes a full-scale Orion capsule mock-up for astronaut training.[66]
  • Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) Orion (originally designated OFT-1), constructed at Michoud Assembly Facility,[67] was delivered by Lockheed Martin to the Kennedy Space Center on July 2, 2012,[68] and launched and recovered on December 5, 2014.
  • The Boilerplate Test Article (BTA) underwent splashdown testing at the Langley Research Center. This same test article has been modified to support Orion Recovery Testing in stationary and underway recovery tests.[69] The BTA contains over 150 sensors to gather data on its test drops.[70] Testing of the 18,000-pound (8,200 kg) mockup ran from July 2011 to January 6, 2012.[71]
  • The Ground Test Article (GTA) stack, located at Lockheed Martin in Denver, is undergoing vibration testing.[72] It is made up by the Orion Ground Test Vehicle (GTV) combined with its Launch Abort System (LAS). Further testing will see the addition of service module simulator panels and Thermal Protection System (TPS) to the GTA stack.[73]
  • The Drop Test Article (DTA), also known as the Drop Test Vehicle (DTV) underwent test drops at the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona from an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,600 m).[73] Testing began in 2007. Drogue chutes deploy around 20,000 and 15,000 feet (6,100 and 4,600 m). Testing of the staged parachutes includes the partial opening and complete failure of one of the three main parachutes. With only two chutes deployed the DTA lands at 33 feet per second (10 m/s), the maximum touchdown speed for Orion's design.[74] The drop test program has had several failures in 2007, 2008, and 2010,[75] resulting in new DTV being constructed. The landing parachute set is known as the Capsule Parachute Assembly System (CPAS).[76] With all parachutes functional, a landing speed of 17 mph (27 km/h) was achieved.[77] A third test vehicle, the PCDTV3, was successfully tested in a drop on April 17, 2012.[78]

Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV)

The idea for a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) was announced on January 14, 2004, as part of the Vision for Space Exploration after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident.[79] The CEV effectively replaced the conceptual Orbital Space Plane (OSP), a proposed replacement for the Space Shuttle. A design competition was held, and the winner was the proposal from a consortium led by Lockheed Martin. It was later named "Orion" after the stellar constellation and mythical hunter of the same name,[80] and became part of the Constellation program under NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe.

Constellation proposed using the Orion CEV in both crew and cargo variants to support the International Space Station and as a crew vehicle for a return to the Moon. The crew/command module was originally intended to land on solid ground on the US west coast using airbags but later changed to ocean splashdown, while a service module was included for life support and propulsion.[17] With a diameter of 5 meters (16 ft 5 in) as opposed to 3.9 meters (12 ft 10 in), the Orion CEV would have provided 2.5 times greater volume than the Apollo CM.[81] The service module was originally planned to use liquid methane (LCH4) as its fuel, but switched to hypergolic propellants due to the infancy of oxygen/methane-powered rocket technologies and the goal of launching the Orion CEV by 2012.[82][83][84]

The Orion CEV was to be launched on the Ares I rocket to low Earth orbit, where it would rendezvous with the Altair lunar lander launched on a heavy-lift Ares V launch vehicle for lunar missions.

Environmental testing

NASA performed environmental testing of Orion from 2007 to 2011 at the Glenn Research Center Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio. The Center's Space Power Facility is the world's largest thermal vacuum chamber.[85]

Launch abort system (LAS) testing

ATK Aerospace successfully completed the first Orion Launch Abort System (LAS) test on November 20, 2008. The LAS motor could provide 500,000 lbf (2,200 kN) of thrust in case an emergency situation should arise on the launch pad or during the first 300,000 feet (91 km) of the rocket's climb to orbit. The 2008 test firing of the LAS was the first time a motor with reverse flow propulsion technology of this scale had ever been tested.[86]

On March 2, 2009, a full size, full weight command module mockup (pathfinder) began its journey from the Langley Research Center to the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, for at-gantry launch vehicle assembly training and for LAS testing.[87] On May 10, 2010, NASA successfully executed the LAS PAD-Abort-1 test at White Sands New Mexico, launching a boilerplate (mock-up) Orion capsule to an altitude of approximately 6,000 feet (1,800 m). The test used three solid-fuel rocket motors  a main thrust motor, an attitude control motor and the jettison motor.[88]

Splashdown recovery testing

In 2009 during the Constellation phase of the program, the Post-landing Orion Recovery Test (PORT) was designed to determine and evaluate methods of crew rescue and what kind of motions the astronaut crew could expect after landing, including conditions outside the capsule for the recovery team. The evaluation process supported NASA's design of landing recovery operations including equipment, ship and crew needs.

The PORT Test used a full-scale boilerplate (mock-up) of NASA's Orion crew module and was tested in water under simulated and real weather conditions. Tests began March 23, 2009, with a Navy-built, 18,000-pound (8,200 kg) boilerplate in a test pool. Full sea testing ran April 6–30, 2009, at various locations off the coast of NASA's Kennedy Space Center with media coverage.[89]

Cancellation of Constellation program

On May 7, 2009, the Obama administration enlisted the Augustine Commission to perform a full independent review of the ongoing NASA space exploration program. The commission found the then current Constellation Program to be woefully under-budgeted with significant cost overruns, behind schedule by four years or more in several essential components, and unlikely to be capable of meeting any of its scheduled goals.[90][91] As a consequence, the commission recommended a significant re-allocation of goals and resources. As one of the many outcomes based on these recommendations, on October 11, 2010, the Constellation program was canceled, ending development of the Altair, Ares I, and Ares V. The Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle survived the cancellation and was transferred to be launched on the Space Launch System.[92]

Constellation launches of boilerplate spacecraft

Launches Launch Crew Launch Vehicle Outcome Duration Description
MLAS July 8, 2009

Wallops Flight Facility

N/A MLAS Success 57 seconds Test of the Max Launch Abort System using a boilerplate Orion.
Ares I-X October 28, 2009

Kennedy LC-39B

N/A Ares I-X Success ~8 minutes Ares I-X was the first-stage prototype and design concept demonstrator in the Ares I program.

Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV)

The Orion development program was restructured from three different versions of the Orion capsule, each for a different task,[93] to the development of the MPCV as a single version capable of performing multiple tasks.[4] On December 5, 2014, a developmental Multi-Purpose spacecraft was successfully launched into space and retrieved at sea after splashdown on the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1).[94][95]

Orion splashdown recovery testing

Before EFT-1 in December 2014 several preparatory vehicle recovery tests were performed, which continued the "crawl, walk, run" approach established by PORT. The "crawl" phase was performed August 12–16, 2013, with the Stationary Recovery Test (SRT). The Stationary Recovery Test demonstrated the recovery hardware and techniques that were to be employed for the recovery of the Orion crew module in the protected waters of Naval Station Norfolk utilizing the LPD-17 type USS Arlington as the recovery ship.[96]

The "walk" and "run" phases were performed with the Underway Recovery Test (URT). Also utilizing a LPD 17 class ship, the URT were performed in more realistic sea conditions off the coast of California in early 2014 to prepare the US Navy / NASA team for recovering the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) Orion crew module. The URT tests completed the pre-launch test phase of the Orion recovery system.

Exploration Flight Test 1

At 7:05 AM EST on December 5, 2014, the Orion capsule was launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket for its first test flight, and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean about 4.5 hours later. Although it was not crewed, the two-orbit flight was NASA's first launch of a human-rated vehicle since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011. Orion reached an altitude of 3,600 mi (5,800 km) and speeds of up to 20,000 mph (8,900 m/s) on a flight that tested Orion's heat shield, parachutes, jettisoning components, and on-board computers.[97] Orion was recovered by USS Anchorage and brought to San Diego, California, for its return to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.[98]

Canceled Asteroid Redirect Mission

This mission would have placed an asteroid in lunar orbit, rather than sending astronauts to an asteroid in deep space.[99] The mission was given its notice of de-funding in April 2017.[100] The development of advanced solar electric propulsion technology originally meant for this mission continues for its potential application on the proposed Lunar Gateway.[100]

Launch abort system (LAS) testing

An improved abort engine test was successfully completed on March 30, 2019.[101]

On July 2, 2019, the Orion Ascent Abort-2 (AA‑2) test flight was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 46.[102][103]

Orion development test flights

Mission Patch Launch Crew Launch vehicle[lower-alpha 2] Outcome Duration
Pad Abort-1
  • May 6, 2010
  • White Sands LC-32E
N/A Orion Launch Abort System (LAS) Success 95 seconds
Exploration Flight Test 1
Success 4 hours 24 minutes
Ascent Abort-2
N/A Orion Abort Test Booster Success 3 minutes 13 seconds


As of 2019, Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed Orion lunar flyby launching on SLS no earlier than November 2020.[105] Artemis 2 will be the first crewed flight of Orion, and Artemis 3 will visit the Lunar Gateway before landing on the Moon. The Gateway is expected to include a solar-powered communications hub, science laboratory, short-term habitation module, and staging area for rovers and other robots.[106] Various components of the Gateway would be launched on commercial launch vehicles and as Orion co-manifested payloads.[107]

Artemis program

Mission Launch date Crew Launch vehicle[lower-alpha 3] Duration[lower-alpha 4]
Artemis 1
NET November 2020[108] N/A SLS Block 1 Crew ~25d
Maiden flight of the SLS, carrying the Artemis 1 mission hardware and thirteen CubeSats selected through several programs.[109][110][111] The payloads will be sent on a trans-lunar injection trajectory.[112][113]
Artemis 2 Q4 2022[114] TBA SLS Block 1 Crew ~10d
Carrying the Artemis 2 mission hardware, along with numerous CubeSats to be selected through the CSLI.[115][116]
Artemis 3 2024 TBA SLS Block 1 Crew[117] ~30d
Carrying the Artemis 3 mission hardware, expected to be the first lunar landing of the Artemis program.[118][117]
Proposed missions[119]
Artemis 4 2025 TBA SLS Block 1B Crew ~30d
Debut of the SLS Block 1B and the Exploration Upper Stage.[120]
Artemis 5 2026 TBA SLS Block 1B Crew ~30d
Artemis 6 2027 TBA SLS Block 1B Crew ~30d
Artemis 7 2028 TBA SLS Block 1B Crew >60d

Potential Mars missions

The Orion capsule is designed to support future missions to send astronauts to Mars, probably to take place in the 2030s. Since the Orion capsule provides only about 2.25 m3 (79 cu ft) of living space per crew member,[121] the use of an additional Deep Space Habitat module featuring propulsion will be needed for long duration missions. The complete spacecraft stack is known as the Deep Space Transport.[122] The habitat module will provide additional space and supplies, as well as facilitate spacecraft maintenance, mission communications, exercise, training, and personal recreation.[123] Some concepts for DSH modules would provide approximately 70.0 m3 (2,472 cu ft) of living space per crew member,[123] though the DSH module is in its early conceptual stage. DSH sizes and configurations may vary slightly, depending on crew and mission needs.[124] The mission may launch in the mid-2030s or late-2030s.[125]

See also


Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) 1, 2, and CCiCap (formerly CCDev 3) related:

Other crewed spacecraft


 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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  2. Serial number displayed in parentheses.
  3. Serial number displayed in parentheses.
  4. Time displayed in days, hours, minutes, and seconds.
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