Orion Test Flight: Back to the Future

Posted on Wed, December 3, 2014

If weather permits and no last-minute technical issues arise, NASA’s next-generation crew exploration vehicle launches into space for the first time on December 4*, 2014. The engineering test flight with no one aboard the craft is planned to last four hours, make two orbits at a distance of 3,600 miles, and splash down off the coast of Baja California. The flight will test basic spacecraft systems and new safety measures.

Orion Rendering

A rendering of the Orion crew vehicle in launch fairing with crew escape system rocket atop a Delta V Heavy launch vehicle.

Some have called Orion “Apollo on steroids” because the large conical capsule is reminiscent of the Apollo command modules that took men to the Moon and back. Scaled up to seat four crewmembers, Orion has a crew escape system for use in a launch mishap. The craft descends from orbit protected by a blunt ablative heat shield and slowed by three huge parachutes like those used before the shuttle era. The launch vehicle for this test flight is the Delta IV Heavy from United Launch Alliance, routinely used to place satellites into orbit. A new Space Launch System (SLS) under development will eventually come into service for Orion; it also draws elements from the past—derivatives of the Saturn V and space shuttle liquid propellant engines and scaled-up shuttle solid rocket boosters.

Orion in orbit showing crew module on the right

Orion in orbit: Crew Module on right, attached to service module, and second stage/orbital maneuvering engine at left. 

NASA is billing this flight as the first step in the journey to Mars, and Orion as the spacecraft built to take humans farther than they have ever gone before. It may be a decade or longer before a Mars mission happens, as there is not yet an official program with funding in place. However, sending the vehicle far beyond the International Space Station’s 250-mile orbit to check out its performance in the harsher radiation environment and the higher speed reentry is a prelude to long-distance exploration.

Image of the last U.S. spacecraft to return this way came home in 1975

The last U.S. spacecraft to return this way came home in 1975.


The Museum has three distinctive links to Orion. One is Chief Engineer Julie Kramer White, who was our liaison to NASA for shuttle test vehicle Enterprise. Based in the orbiter engineering office in Houston during the 1990s, she arranged for various inspections on the original orbiter to evaluate the condition of its aging materials. To our knowledge, she is the first female chief engineer for the development of a crew spacecraft. Another connection to Orion is that a few mementos from the Museum are on this flight. We sent three small silk flags with our vintage logo, previously flown on Discovery’s first mission in 1984; two small “Web of Space” sculptures by local artist John Safer that we award as the Museum’s annual trophy for current and lifetime achievement in aerospace; and an unflown oxygen hose from our inventory of spare Apollo spacesuit parts.

Museum Flag

National Air and Space Museum flag.


Our strongest connection to Orion is our relationship with Lockheed Martin, developer of the new spacecraft and one of the Museum’s most generous supporters. The Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater and our partnership in producing the first three IMAX® films made in space are just two of the most visible emblems of this long and valued relationship. The Museum plans a launch and return watch program in the Moving Beyond Earth exhibition gallery, using the wall-size screens to give viewers a close look at these events. There we tell the shuttle and space station stories and set the scene for the future of human spaceflight. That future, whatever it may hold, begins with Orion. The Museum’s staff sends all best wishes to NASA, Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance, and the entire Orion team for a successful first test flight.

*The first launch attempt on December 4 was briefly postponed by high winds and then scrubbed when technical issues arose that could not be resolved within the four hour launch window. Launch was rescheduled to December 5.