A Charming Alphabet Series Explores the ABCs of Rocket Science

NASA is producing an alphabet book of rocket science to unravel the acronym soup surrounding the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle project. The result is a fantastic bit of retro-futuristic art and a perfect reading companion for budding geeks.

NASA is developing a new multi-purpose crew vehicle, the Orion. The testing is ticking along at a predictable rate, but its outreach efforts are getting downright adorable. I am infatuated with this alphabetic guide to the endless acronyms and technical terminology that haunt Orion. It scores well on both form and function as a pretty piece of genuinely useful educational tool for deciphering NASA's crewed space program.


I'm in love with the aesthetics of this project. The clean lines feel extremely modern, while the colour palette that evokes an earlier era at the dawn of the space age. The charcoal greys pair beautifully with updated versions of avocado green, tangerine oranges, and other tones I remember from my grandparent's kitchen. If this is an effort to revive the excitement of the Apollo era of human space flight, I am totally down with this being the visual signature of The Next Big Step.


Moving past aesthetics, the vocabulary is a strange mix. Instead of using rocket science to teach the alphabet, the series uses the alphabet as a framework to teach rocket science. Each letter is assigned a different bit of technical vocabulary from rocket science, with the accompanying text doing a nice job of explaining the concepts without being condescending. While I've met enough children with an encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaur species and rocket mechanics that surpasses my own memory for details, they were also children well past the stage of learning the alphabet. Even so, I'm already hoping that NASA publishes this as a real book when they complete the series so I can start presenting it as the geekiest baby-shower present ever.


To get a feel for the series, here's the the first few entries:


A is for Apogee. See where it takes you!

The term apogee refers to the point in an elliptical orbit when a spacecraft is farthest from the Earth. During Exploration Flight Test-1, Orion's flight path will take it to an apogee of 3,600 miles. Just how high is that? A commercial airliner flies about 8 miles above the Earth's surface, so Orion's flight is 450 times farther than that.


B is for Beyond: past the moon and onto Mars.

When a spacecraft travels beyond Earth's orbit, it travels away from the planet, instead of circling around it.

Orion is designed for deep space missions to go beyond Earth's orbit, like going to an asteroid or Mars. The crew module is powered by solar panels and batteries, allowing an unlimited power supply. Orion's life support system recycles water and oxygen for the crew, which allows them to travel through space for months. Orion's heat shield and crew cabin are also designed to shield the crew from the intense radiation encountered during deep space exploration.


C is for Crew Module: a home far away from home for our astronauts

The crew module is a transportation capsule that provides a living area for the crew, and storage area for supplies and research instruments.

Orion's crew module will carry astronauts on missions to destinations never before visited by humans and safely return them to Earth. The Exploration Flight Test-1 crew module will be the first Orion test vehicle sent into space.


D is for Delta IV Heavy: the rocket that will take Orion on its first test ride!

The Delta IV Heavy is the rocket that will launch the Orion Spacecraft on its first trip to space, Exploration Flight Test-1, in December 2014.

The Delta IV Heavy rocket is the largest launch vehicle available today capable of propelling more than 60,000 pounds of spacecraft and cargo to a high altitude orbit.

Ultimately, Orion will launch atop NASA's Space Launch System (SLS). SLS will be the most powerful and proven propulsion system in the world and will begin launching in 2017!


E is for the Environment that will sustain our astronauts during flight.

The ECLSS is a life support system that controls atmospheric pressure, fire detection and suppression, oxygen levels, waste management and water recycling.

Orion's ECLSS will support a crew for missions to deep space and will carry crews farther from Earth than ever before. The ECLSS for Orion consists of technology previously tested on the International Space Station. It will have to support the crew with the essentials like breathable air and drinkable water for 21 days all while fitting in a space smaller than a standard office cubicle!


F is for Frangible & Fairings: key components of Orion's separation events.

Frangible joints are breakable joints used to connect the spacecraft's protective panels, called fairings, to the rocket. A structure is frangible if it breaks, distorts or yields on impact to minimize any hazard to the vehicle. The fairings protect the spacecraft from the changing pressures, temperatures and vibrations of the atmosphere surrounding the rocket during ascent. During ascent, about seven minutes into flight, the Orion spacecraft and launch vehicle will reach 135 miles in altitude. At this point, pyrotechnics will be used to break the frangible joints and separate the fairings, exposing the spacecraft to space.


This is the 11th week, unveiling J in the 26-weeks series that will run through the complete alphabet investigating different aspects of space flight, rocket science, and the Orion program. View the full series as it is released on Flickr or Facebook.

Any guesses how they'll fill the rest of the alphabet, 0r alternate ideas for the letters they already covered?


Update: Now the entire book is online, you can download the full alphabet book here, a colouring book here, or an alphabet poster here.

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