NASA Orion spacecraft systemAs of this posting, NASA has scrubbed for today its test-launch of the first Orion spacecraft, the ship destined to take astronauts back to the Moon, to orbit, and eventually, to Mars.

NASA’s design of the Orion should look familiar to any space buff: It’s the Apollo design, part deux.  Naturally, NASA has updated the technology in the Orion, and even made it bigger (to hold one more astronaut).  Their theory is that this really is a better way to get astronauts to space than the Space Transport System (aka the Space Shuttle), which did suffer two complete failures in its history, with the loss of all crew members (actually not a bad performance record, out of 135 missions to space), and had no provision for emergency egress (its only really damning feature).

Even so, today’s scrub of the test-launch was caused by two faulty valves in the fuel system… leading one to wonder whether building Orion after the “familiar, but upgraded” Apollo tech was really the way to go.

Below is a gross comparison of the Apollo and Orion specs:

Apollo-Orion comparison

The specs alone really don’t tell us much, other than the fact that the Orion is bigger, its service module is half the size of Apollo’s service module (and provides a third the thrust), and they’ve abandoned fuel cells for batteries.  It clearly doesn’t go into the actual technology differences, but hopefully, we’ll be hearing much more about that down the line.

All we know is, it’s essentially designed to operate the same as the Apollo system.  And judging by today’s malfunction, it’s managing that just fine so far.

As much as I’d like to see Mankind get back into orbit, into space, back to the Moon, and on to other planets… I admit I have my doubts that this is really the way to go.  Part of me is afraid that perennially-underfunded NASA is making do with old designs with new lockwashers, because they can’t afford the luxury of truly designing a system for the 21st century.  And I realize that it’s not nearly that simple; but I can’t help having the feeling, nonetheless.

Of course, another part of me is wondering whether NASA deliberately chose to modernize the design of the iconic system that got us to the Moon, specifically to recall those heady days when American tech was considered the best in the world, and we were accomplishing things other countries could only dream of.  Is Orion as much PR as product?

Whatever the truth is, we are now poised to see where Orion leads, and how well.  I wish NASA the best of luck with the Orion system, and I hope it heralds a new era of space exploration and accomplishment.

My fingers are crossed.

Edit: Dec. 6
After the failed Thursday launch, it was good to see Orion get off the ground on Friday and perform flawlessly, from liftoff to splashdown, according to NASA personnel.  Orion is intended to be the first piece of a collection of tools designed to take humans back into space.  If Orion’s performance is any indication, we’re off to a good start.

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