Our image this month shows a pair of NASA astronauts boarding a brand new spacecraft (at last). On 13 June 2013, Cady Coleman and Ricky Arnold stepped through a hatch into an Orion crew module for a series of spacesuit check tests at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Sadly, Coleman and Arnold will probably never ride an Orion into the deep black, for no Orion will carry humans for at least six years, but this picture does prove that the project is still advancing.
NASA’s management hopes the Orion crew module will serve as both transport and a home to a crew of four or more astronauts during future long-duration missions to asteroids, Mars and other destinations throughout the Solar System. This is not a solely American project. A space-going Orion will be fitted to a service module derived from Europe’s successful Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV). The service module will provide propulsion, power, thermal control, as well as supplying water and oxygen to the astronauts in the habitable module. Perhaps supplying this vital module will mean one day Europeans will travel into deep space in Orions.
Only one Orion is firmly planned at present: a test flight is scheduled to be launched by a Delta IV Heavy rocket in 2014. There will be no crew on board. After a couple more crewless flights, the first manned mission is expected to take place after 2020 and be launched by NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket. This flight may take the crew to orbit the Moon just like Apollo 8 in 1968. Orion’s future will hopefully be a series of glorious voyages of exploration, but sadly at the moment the project’s destiny lies in the hands of the capricious gods of economics. Will Orion be part of humanity’s expansion into the Solar System or just another false step? Only time will tell!