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NASA's future recalls past

The agency unveils its Orion module for tests. The capsule resembles Apollo's, and it too will shoot for the moon.

October 30, 2008|John Johnson Jr. | Johnson is a Times staff writer.
  • Engineers and technician run a structural mass properties test on a test module of the Orion crew exploration vehicle at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base.
Engineers and technician run a structural mass properties test on a test… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE — NASA rolled out its next-generation space capsule here Wednesday, revealing a bulbous module that is scheduled to carry humans back to the moon in 2020 and eventually onward to Mars.

Unlike the space-plane shape of the shuttles, the new Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle looks strikingly similar to the old Apollo space capsule that carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon and back in 1969, with Armstrong and Aldrin becoming the first humans to walk on the lunar surface.

There is one key difference, however. The test module, unveiled at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, is substantially bigger -- 16.5 feet in diameter compared with Apollo 11's 12.8 feet.

The craft's extra girth will allow it to carry six astronauts instead of Apollo's three.

"This is the same shape as Apollo," said Gary Martin, the project manager for the test program at Dryden. "But the extra space translates into twice as much volume as Apollo."

Still, cramming six astronauts inside will make it "pretty cozy," he said.

The test module, or "boilerplate," is undergoing structural testing at Dryden, which is located at Edwards Air Force Base north of Lancaster on the edge of the Mojave Desert.

The series of engineering tests began Wednesday with a relatively simple one: A man pushed the craft as it sat balanced on jacks and springs. Instruments then measured its momentum to make sure it didn't swing too much or too little.

"We're looking for pretty smooth motion and nice oscillations," said Cathy Bahm, deputy project manager for the test program.

In the coming weeks, engineers will truck the capsule out to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, where they will test the launch abort system, an emergency escape system for astronauts.

There are years of development still to go. But if things go as planned, the capsule could begin carrying astronauts to the International Space Station as early as 2014. Orion will sit atop a powerful new rocket, called Ares.

The major goal for Orion is to send Americans back to the moon by 2020, the first step in establishing a permanent moon base.

A manned journey to Mars would probably take place sometime after 2030.

In designing Orion, NASA has shunned the space-plane concept embodied by the space shuttle as too vulnerable to flying debris during launch. The dangers of that configuration were demonstrated by the loss of Columbia in 2003, which broke during reentry after a piece of debris tore a hole in its left wing.

The return to putting the astronauts on top of the rockets will leave a four-year gap between the retirement of the shuttle in 2010 and the first flight of the new vehicle. That is unless the next administration changes its mind and decides to keep flying the shuttle, something that current NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has opposed.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colo., is building the real Orion, but the boilerplate model undergoing testing at Dryden, built at the Langley Research Center in Virginia, is nearly identical.

Weighing in at 14,000 pounds, it is missing only the avionics and instruments inside.

When completed, the capsule will weigh about 17,000 pounds.

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john.johnson@latimes.com

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