March 30, 2009
Visitors to the National Mall will get a treat today. Parked just outside the National Air and Space Museum is a mockup of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, the spacecraft that will replace the Space Shuttle, which will go out of service next year.
NASA and the U.S. Navy built this replica of the Orion CEV for water testing. One of the advances with the Orion system is the ability to abort a mission after takeoff—NASA will be able to pull the CEV away from the rocket, then blow up the rocket and let the capsule splash down into the ocean. But they need a way to safely recover the crew, even in heavy seas like those that can kick up in the North Atlantic. The mockup CEV has been undergoing testing at a facility outside Washington, D.C. and is now being sent to Florida for further tests in the Atlantic Ocean. This will include testing how it behaves with water on the inside to simulate what would happen if the heat shield (that’s the bottom part) were damaged.
Orion, so the plan goes, will be used to visit the International Space Station and then to return to the Moon, carrying four to six astronauts at a time. The CEV seems fairly small for so many people, which was why I was somewhat surprised when Don Pearson of the Johnson Space Center called it a “fairly large capsule.” It is larger than the Apollo spacecraft (I checked out the Apollo 11 command module in NASM), but the CEV still seems small, particularly when Pearson said that NASA intended to use it, or a modified version of the CEV, to go to Mars. The journey to Mars would take six to nine months. The space explorers would then spend about two years on the red planet before a return journey to earth, also six to nine months. That is an incredible amount of time to spend with three to five other people in a space the size of a couple of office cubicles.
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