Today the prototype Orion spacecraft made its final move before heading to the launch pad for testing in December. The monster machine was carefully shuffled around the Kennedy Space Center, leaving its fuelling station and heading to the installation of the Launch Abort System.

Top image: Orion making a quick turn on the apron during transportation. Image credit: @snoozingdogs

Orion approaching the Launch Abort System. Image credit: NASA

The Orion spacecraft is part of NASA's Next Big Step, a collection of crewed deep space missions. Now that astronaut transport between Earth and the International Space Station has been handed off to commercial carriers, NASA is free to dream big, and work on epic projects to carry humans out for an asteroid redirect mission, and maybe, hopefully, one day to Mars. Orion is just the start of that — the capacity to support four astronauts for twenty-one days of spaceflight is ambitious, but insufficient for interplanetary travel.


Finally, astronauts will be able to travel without bumping their heads! Image credit: NASA

ULA Delta IV rocket undergoing integration prior to launch. Image credit: NASA/Daniel Casper

Orion will be boosted into orbit by a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket for Exploration Flight Test-1. The rocket isn't certified for transporting humans and, while a heavy lifter, is insufficient to boost this kind of weight on deep space missions. Instead, NASA is developing another prototype, the Space Launch System.


The ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket is featured in the Orion A-to-Z series. Image credit: NASA

During the December test flight, Orion will reach approximately 5,800 kilometers altitude, fifteen times higher than the International Space Station. It will orbit the Earth twice, reaching over 32,000 kilometers per hour before reentry. That should subject the heat shield to a scorching 2,200ºC. That's just 80% of how hot Orion would get returning from NASA's proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Splashdown recovery test on September 15, 2014. Image credit: NASA/Cory Huston

Exploration Flight Test-1 will be an uncrewed test flight putting the Crew Module, Service Module, Launch Abort System, and Orion-to-Stage Adapter together for the first time in the actual intended-use environment. The test flight will stress the heat shield performance, separation events, avionics and software performance, attitude control and guidance, parachute deployment, and recovery operations.

Parachute test in June 2014. The parachute will be responsible for slowing Orion to just 30 kph. Image credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak

This was the second major move for the Orion spacecraft this month. It was transported on September 11th from the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center for fuelling.

Today's move was to bring the spacecraft into the Launch Abort System Facility. The facility was historically used to lift the canister that carried space shuttle payloads to the pad.

Now it's home to the 13-meter tall Launch Abort System, which was assembled horizontally within the facility and rotated vertically this past July. Now it will be installed on top of the rest of the spacecraft. This system is an astronaut failsafe: if something goes wrong during launch, it will jettison the crew module away from the failing rocket and put the module in position for a safe landing. The Launch Abort System is another example of just how much bigger Orion is doing everything: it has more thrust than the entire Atlas booster that was used to launch John Glenn into orbit in 1962.


The Launch Abort System rotated into vertical position in preparation for final assembly. Image credit: Lockheed Martin

From here, the next stop for Orion will be the launch pad:

Orion gets a lot of grief as a government project, frequently hazed that it must be over budget and perpetually delayed. Yet here it is, almost ready for the first round of full-system testing. Sure, the test was originally intended for September, but a two-month slip is insignificant for such an ambitious undertaking. NASA hasn't had many opportunities to dream big in recent decades: the moon landings were nearly a lifetime ago, people whine about being bored of Martian robots, and somehow the reality that we have a freaking constantly-inhabited space station above us all the time is insufficiently inspiring. Orion isn't perfect (and I'm sure the discussion section will more than adequately cover exactly how), but I'm excited to be around for the start of a truly ambitious project. This is exactly why crew transport should be outsourced to commercial enterprise: to free NASA up to take on daring, impractical, uneconomical, amazing dreams.


Good luck, Orion. You can bet I'll be glued to your live-stream for the entire test launch.