In late August, news reports indicated that the Orion spacecraft being developed for NASA’s manned mission to Mars was powered up for the first time at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The successful powering of the Orion craft, including computer components, is a small yet important step along the path towards NASA’s eventual development of the Space Launch System (SLS).
Science news outlet Phys.org notes that Orion’s initial power-on was the first time that vehicle management computers, power units and data units installed on Orion were loaded with software and tested. The core system, referred to as the “heart” and “brain” of Orion by multiple outlets, must first be evaluated by the craft’s designers before testing out various crew module subsystems which will support manned missions into space. The craft, which is being designed, built and tested by Bethesda, MD-based aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), will be outfitted with 55 spacecraft avionics suite components which will be secured by nearly 400 harnesses over the coming months.
All of this work is in an effort to get the Orion craft ready for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), a mission which will involve the first launch of Orion by the SLS and the use of the moon’s gravitational forces to bring Orion to a deep retrograde orbit about 40,000 miles past the moon. On its return from EM-1, Orion is planned to use the moon’s gravity once again to accelerate the spacecraft towards Earth at speeds of 25,000 miles per hour, reaching temperatures of about 5,000°F, to test the craft’s ability to handle those speeds and temperatures.
This February, NASA started a feasibility study which will look into the risks and benefits of providing EM-1 with a manned crew. In May, NASA affirmed its plans for EM-1, determining that it was too difficult at the current stage of mission planning to address the difficulties of adding a manned crew to the mission. As of May, EM-1 was scheduled to take off in 2019, the date being adjusted in part due to tornado damage this February at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana. Plans for Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) are already being made to provide Orion with its first manned crew which will take off using the SLS as early as August 2021. News releases from NASA indicate that the space agency is interested in sending up to four astronauts with each manned launch of Orion, including EM-2.