Ever since President Dwight D. Eisenhower retrofitted the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) into the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, the United States has taken its position as a global leader in space exploration to be an enormous source of pride. When NASA was faced with no other option but to retire the Space Transportation System (STS) in 2011, it was natural that the news would come with a degree of mournful solemnity and spur speculation that the country was admitting defeat after more than 40 years of space superiority. However, the Orion program represents something far greater than the limited scope offered by what has been more commonly referred to as the Shuttle program. It offers a new opportunity to sail the vacuum beyond mankind’s prior furthest horizons.
The Shuttle program was, in essence, a 30 year moratorium on travelling beyond low-earth orbit. The design of the Shuttle was primarily focused on economy and re-use, and the resulting vehicle was largely incapable of super-orbital flight, due to its massive weight and the diminishing returns on trying to lift more than the millions of pounds of rocket fuel it already took to place the Shuttles in Low-Earth Orbit. Rarely in the entire lifespan of the Shuttle program did one of the vehicles exceed 200 miles of altitude above the earth.
The Orion program has been designed and engineered, mainly in collaboration between NASA and Lockheed Martin, to push boundaries. While it seems visually to be a return to the design principles of the Apollo program, Orion brings a new emphasis on solving the problems that limited the previous generations’ space exploits, in terms of duration and range. The Orion test launch which occurred Dec. 5, 2014, was conducted to examine new approaches to some of the more mundane concerns, such as communication systems and ocean recovery protocols, but also extended to checking some of the bells and whistles added to the new capsule. On the list were upgraded radiation shielding and an improved take on the heat dissipation capability to allow faster re-entry speeds (20,000 miles per hour compared to the Shuttle’s 17,500), which will be necessary to widen the window of success in an eventual manned trip to Mars. NASA’s new crew vehicle also features an “ejection seat” of sorts, in that the whole capsule is capable of emergency separation in the eventuality of a rocket failure on launch.
The engineering efforts of Lockheed Martin, to assure that specifications provided by NASA have been met or exceeded, have been an unprecedented application of technology fresh from the cutting edge and into practical design. The life support system has been designed to be a closed loop with enough capacity to provide air for up to four astronauts while having the flexibility to recover from hazardous situations, and the computerized systems have been radiation-hardened to prevent decay and interference over a lengthy inter-planetary mission. Redundant yet dissimilar systems were used throughout, to minimize the likelihood of a catastrophic event, while new types of welds were used in fusing the pressure vessel together, allowing for a lighter, stronger vehicle than previously possible.
The major potential setback for the Orion program comes in the form of the availability of funding. Many major projects in recent years, from the Big Dig in Boston to the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, have come later than anticipated and sporting serious cost overruns. When also considering the American public’s sentiment spoiling towards spending, against the backdrop of historically unprecedented debt levels, one likely wonders where the prioritization of NASA on budget sheets will ultimately end up. However, this writer cannot help himself but to believe that the exploration of space represents the entire species’ destiny made manifest; that if humanity cannot develop the capability to survive beyond earth, then it will inevitably die out.
Opinion By Brian Whittemore