back to article Orion: To Mars, the Moon and beyond... but first, a test flight through Van Allen belt

NASA’s Orion spacecraft, rescued from the chop by President Barack Obama and aimed at reviving the US’s dormant manned space exploration with trips to Mars, the Moon and asteroids, will have its first test flight this week. Youtube Video The Apollo-like ship has been seen by some as nothing more than a stealthy bit of …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Mk II Chocolate Teapot

    Now twice as chocolatey for the same high price!

    1. JeffyPoooh

      "...20,000 miles an hour....the challenge that we’re faced with..."

      “We’ll be coming in at 20,000 miles an hour and the resulting temp is almost 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit – as a relative to that, molten lava from a volcano is 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit – so that’s the challenge that we’re faced with,” said Price.

      Yeah... 'cause, like, it's never been done before.

      1. imanidiot Silver badge

        Re: "...20,000 miles an hour....the challenge that we’re faced with..."

        It has been done before. Just not with this type of heatshield and mass. The apollo CM was a "mere" 5500 kg. The Orion capsule weighs closer to 9000 kg. The added weight and size complicates matters.

  2. Dalek Dave

    And there, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the proof that they never went to the moon.

    If they are trying to figure out how to get astronauts through the VARB then it is because they have never done it before.

    Had they done so, they would have the answers already....

    I thank you!

    1. Jagged
      Thumb Down

      Please change your name so that this kind of conspiracy idiocy is not associated with Doctor Who.


    2. sandman

      Nah, they did the moon missions before anyone had invented health and safety. In those days radiation just gave you a healthy glow, C'mon, they even made breakfast cereals that made you glow in the dark!

      (For youunglings who haven't the faintest idea what I'm talking about - see this ad... ).

    3. Anonymous Blowhard

      @Dalek Dave

      You're forgetting that the Apollo astronauts were working in a less risk-averse culture than we have today; and that their total exposure was a few days.

      I hope your comments were intended as a joke though; otherwise it's a poor trolling effort for this site.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave...

      Judging by the number of downvotes, it looks as if you've managed to upset all the commentards who's pensions rely on the Aerospace industry:)

    5. LucreLout Silver badge

      And there, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the proof that they never went to the moon.

      If they are trying to figure out how to get astronauts through the VARB then it is because they have never done it before.

      That thought occurred to me too, very quickly followed by its dismissal. We know how to make a car go through the sound barrier, for a very short time... but what if I redesign it to do so for 2 hours? Would you drive/pilot it without further testing just because Thrust SSC had previously been past the sound barrier?

      We know how to make planes fly, but we still stuff test pilots in each new design before we go full retard with long distance passenger flights.

      NASA have to test the new design as though it was the first time they tested it.... because it is. The moon and mars are two very different propositions.

    6. Justin Pasher

      @Dalek Dave

      "If they are trying to figure out how to get astronauts through the VARB then it is because they have never done it before."

      And I guess you're also one of the people that complains about the lack of stars in the pictures? And the "inconsistent" shadows? And the "too perfectly framed" pictures on the moon? And the "too perfect video" of Apollo 17's lunar lift off? And the "earth transparency overlays" used in the video shot through the Apollo 11 window?

      A little research goes a long way. Much more so than the trite theories being recycled.

    7. Ugotta B. Kiddingme

      also @Dalek Dave

      don't you need to go exterminate or something? Run along, dear, and do be quiet about it.

    8. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Nice one, DD !

      ( are you here all week ? )

    9. cray74

      "If they are trying to figure out how to get astronauts through the VARB then it is because they have never done it before."

      The Apollo missions mostly skirted the northern and southern edges of the belts* rather than fly through the meat of it, and they only spent an hour passing through the belts because the Apollo missions were moving at their fastest during that phase of the flight. This Orion flight is looking at more extended exposures that might be required for alternate Earth-orbit departure routes.

      *They're belts, not spherical death fields shrouding the entire planet.

    10. HMB


      Everyone knows they faked the moon landings on the moon... to save on catering.

  3. Anonymous Blowhard

    Jack of all trades?

    I'm not so sure that trying to incorporate features for re-entry and interplanetary space into the same vehicle is the best way forwards.

    Orion may be a "big" Apollo capsule, but it is way too small for a Mars mission (unless they can get there in less than a month).

    Surely the best plan is to develop Orion as a launch and re-entry capsule and develop a "proper" interplanetary vehicle, no aerodynamics to worry about, for the journey to Mars** And they will need a separate lander/launcher system if they want to go to the surface of Mars, so you're looking at a fairly large composite vehicle anyway.

    They don't even need to take their launch capsule to Mars, it can be left in Low earth Orbit, and the astronauts can transfer to it on their return, possibly via the ISS.

    **This doesn't take into account any aero-braking at either end of the trip (particularly the return), but I'm not sure I'd fancy my chances of living based on being fired at high speed at Mars and then aero-braked into orbit followed by a similar, but slightly faster, encounter with Earth's atmosphere.

    1. Bleu

      Re: Jack of all trades?

      They won't do anything as sensible as assembly at the ISS because the US is too intent on making trouble, the ISS will likely be down before 2020. The last I heard, the schedule was to bring it down next year, but clearer heads seem to have prevailed since then. Haven't seen talk of a 2015 scrapping lately.

      1. Beachrider

        USA commitment to ISS

        On January 8, 2014, as part of justification to continue Commercial Flights to the ISS, the President commited the USA to support the ISS until 2024. It was in all the papers, 11 months ago.

        I don't know why anyone would advise anything else.

        1. Bleu

          Re: USA commitment to ISS

          I don't know why anyone would pay much attention to proclamations from POTUS, but thanks for the info, next one can easily revoke it, of course.

          I wonder if the USA wanted to make it mainly burn up (bits would hit) before people in the other participating countries wanted, would the space agencies involved rebel?

          Since and before the demise of the space shuttle as a people-delivery mechanism, the US and NASA have been enjoying a free ride on a platform where most parts were made by others, leaching off hard-earned soviet knowledge in particular about life in LEO.

          1. Beachrider

            Re: USA commitment to ISS

            POTUS is the executive leader of this USA, simple. Commercial space is depending on business until 2024, simple.

            Of the 27 'major units' of the ISS, NASA paid for 20 to be made. They were made in various places, though.

    2. AbelSoul

      Re: Jack of all trades?

      Orion may be a "big" Apollo capsule, but it is way too small for a Mars mission (unless they can get there in less than a month).

      From the article:

      We’ll carry other things with us, like habitation modules, so that there’ll be large volumes for the astronauts to occupy during the nine month transit to Mars.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Looking at that picture....

    Rather than parachutes, or lifting body like the Shuttle to handle 'landings', hows about just rotating the solar panels really quickly. Then you have a handy helicopter. Yep, I'm joking.

    You'd need 2 sets of counter rotating solar panels. Which would just be silly.

    1. AdamT

      Re: Looking at that picture....

      seen the latest steering fins on the SpaceX Falcon ? Look like mini solar panels (although they aren't), can be waved in all sorts of directions and can be used to rotate the rocket ...

    2. Bleu

      Re: Looking at that picture....

      ... as is your post, but silly enough to get a laugh and a vote out of me.

    3. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Re: Looking at that picture....

      "Then you have a handy helicopter. Yep, I'm joking."

      Ever heard about Roton?

  5. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    Of course it can fly

    About 1% better than this half brick I have here

    On a more serious note: I do not care about the political reasons for the project, if it can get people deeper into space, I am all for it. Maybe it's nostalgia for my days as a kid stuck to the TV screen watching all Apollo-related programmes, but more likely its just that I applaud all serious exploration of space.

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      The reason Orion was nearly scrapped ...

      ... the uncompetitive price.

      Privately funded space programs were going to achieve the same goals, and could be bought for far less than the anticipated cost of Orion - even without government funding for Orion's R&D and the inevitable cost overruns.

      Buying those votes caused the budget axe to fall elsewhere in the space program, just like the ISS chomps through funding that could be spent on more interesting space missions.

      1. Beachrider

        NASA is about Basic Research...

        NASA's job is to enable basic research on not-yet-commercializable technology areas. The pursuit of commercial space is a key benefit of that research. Even the commercial companies benefited from access to NASA's research (Merlin clearly derived from Fastrac, for example).

        There is no commercial model for deepspace manned transfer yet. NASA clearly does not believe that simply adding existing shielding to Dragon or CST-100 will make them into an Orion. We will see.

        NASA does need to compete with ESA, RSA, JSA and CSA, as part of the technology-race that is always happening...

      2. Bleu

        Re: The reason Orion was nearly scrapped ...

        The main reason it was nearly scrapped was a decision from Obama to abolish NASA's 'return to the moon soon' programme, a Bush II policy.

        Ugly machismo after the second shuttle explosion in response to having to rely on the Soyuz for going to the ISS was another.

        I doubt that people within NASA who support manned spaceflight support the ludicrous expense of Lockheed developing the Orion capsule with no defined mission for it to support, except perhaps a few flights to the ISS.

        The 380 million dollar price must surely be for this mission alone, and not include the mega-handouts Lockheed has received for development, hell, it probably also excludes the costs of the launch vehicles (which should always be at least recoverable and materials recyclable, bet they will not be on this), ground facilities, and fuel.

        1. Beachrider

          Orion and the ISS...

          @bleu, Orion was never scrapped (hence, your word 'nearly'), but its Constellation-project SRB-based rocket system was formally scrapped after the Ares I-x test flight in late October 2009. The Ares V was formally scrapped at the same time.

          The direction was changed to focus on commercial vehicles to the ISS.

          From that point forward, Lockheed's Orion was for deepspace-only. Boeing presented CST-100 to function at a lower price (and hold more people) than Orion.

          1. Bleu

            Re: Orion and the ISS...


            Sincerely, thanks for the precise and concise information.

      3. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: The reason Orion was nearly scrapped ...

        Flocke Kroes,

        The ISS is a perfectly reasonable thing for a space program to fund. It may be bloody expensive, particularly compared with what $100 bn-odd would buy in robot missions over 30 years, but if we want to have a permanent manned space habitat in future then we need to do this stuff. There's still loads of research to do on space medicine and life support. Also we've gained, and are still gaining, useful experience in orbital construction (another vital area). After all, I believe nobody had even come close to drowning in space before last year...

        The ISS is doing several very useful things. Fostering international space cooperation, and building a larger group of experienced space-trained people is pretty important for enabling a private space industry. ISS has given us SpaceX (maybe it would have happened without that seed money, but not this quickly), and SpaceX are in my opinion the single most important thing to happen in the space industry so far this century. They give a real hope that space won't remain a hobby for major governments. If we want stuff to happen in space, including cheaper research, it'll only happen when it becomes more accessible, and that will only come when it's cheaper. Also Improving our ability to assemble stuff in space, as well as keep people alive long-term (as above).

        That's not to mention another vital job the ISS did, and probably one of the reasons it got funding out of Congress at all. Which was keeping the Russian space program going after the Soviet Union collapsed, which had two purposes. One was to try to build a more friendly relationship with Russia. The other was to stop their missile/rocket scientists from going onto the freelance market, and turning up in inconvenient places like Iran and North Korea.

        1. Bleu

          Re: The reason Orion was nearly scrapped ...

          Your post has good points but also many silly ones.

          The point of participating in the ISS, to the US government and NASA bureaucrats, is to leach techniques that the Russians learnt, in USSR days on Salyut, for long terms in free-fall.

          The record-holder went blind.

      4. cray74

        Re: The reason Orion was nearly scrapped ...

        "Privately funded space programs were going to achieve the same goals, and could be bought for far less than the anticipated cost of Orion - even without government funding for Orion's R&D and the inevitable cost overruns."

        Privately *funded* space programs want to make money. You don't make money (or at least a net profit) going to Mars. You make money from space activities in 3 primary fashions: 1) launching satellites for groups rich enough to afford them; 2) commsats; and 3) selling satellite imagery to Google Maps.

        Private companies like SpaceX are making a profit in space exploration from US government funds because the US government wants to explore space - or at least keep an expensive orbital science lab stocked with toilet paper. (And, yes, SpaceX is making money for launching satellites for paying, private customers. But that's not exploration.) Private companies like Lockheed Martin, who made the Orion and various Mars probes, are making a profit from space exploration in the same way as SpaceX: the US government's willingness to explore space.

        Neither of those private companies would be turning a net profit from going to Mars or otherwise "exploring space" if a government wasn't funding them, and the government customer isn't going to make money back unless it turns up some unobtainium at $10,000,000 a gram.

        SpaceX has demonstrated laudable cost savings over other private space companies like Lockheed and Boeing. I'm really excited about what could be accomplished with a NASA-sized budget contracted to SpaceX rather than older private space companies. But blithely saying "Privately funded space programs are going to do it better, faster, cheaper!" is ignoring three realities:

        1) Most space exploration targets of the past 60 years have had 0 investment potential; you need a customer willing to lose money on exploration

        2) The only way private companies have made money on space exploration is from government funds

        3) SpaceX's funding source for space exploration isn't different than prior private space companies like Boeing and Lockheed: it's the US government.

    2. MyffyW Silver badge

      Re: Of course it can fly

      Despite lefty inclinations since my student days, I'm a private sector kind of flapper these days (though prone to singing "The Red Flag" when the Christmas ornaments play tannenbaum). Still, as a human wanting to see a bit more of the galaxy, I welcome every effort that takes spaceflight forward. Even those funded by the Chinese Communist Party.

      1. Bleu

        Re: Of course it can fly

        You are unlikely to see more of the galaxy, except through a telescope and in photos, you can buy a suborbital flight on an old but fast fighter jet in Russia for not much more than ten thousand euros.

        If you are out of your teens and not on the path already, like me, you will never be an astronaut.

  6. Bleu


    They get to launch the capsule and lift nobody for the price of just over 5 1/2 people on reliable Soyuz. Sounds like a bargain.

    That they plan to send the empty capsule beyond the van Allen belt is a little interesting, but surely the many unmanned probes and other observations already provide a pretty good idea?

    Maybe they just want to check whether Capricorn 1 was only fiction or a docudrama.

    Oh no, hard right-hook from Buzz, the pain!

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Wow.

      Oddly enough it's considered more sporting to send up all manned capsules empty on their first run nowadays. It's this pesky health'n'safety thing you see.

      Also any probe you send outside the van Allen belts to test what the shielding on a modern capsule is good for pretty much might as well be a capsule. Particularly as this is a double test, in that you want the eccentric orbit to get extra speed to test the heat shield anyway. So while you're outside the protection of the magnetic field anyway, you may as well do a little testing.

      Anyway how long will the Russians be willing to share Soyuz? Or even be able to fund it? The contract is only to 2018 (from memory). Relations are not good, and look to be worsening.

      Apparently Roscosmos are now unable to set a budget, as with sanctions and recession, plus the massive drop in both the oil price and the Rouble, the Russian budget has all gone to crap. As I recall it, something like 35% of the government income is based on oil/gas revenues. So when the oil price drops by 40% in a few months, and they can only borrow at 10% (worse than Greece), something will have to give in their budget. linky

      That article seenms a bit over the top, would be interesting to see what it said in the original Izvestia one. Also the ISS partners pay in dollars for their trips, so Roscosmos will actually make more money on those as the Rouble falls.

      1. Beachrider

        Competing with Soyuz...

        Remember that CST-100 and Dragon compete with Soyuz, not Orion. The Orion specification is to protect astronauts for many MONTHS outside the Van Allen Belts. Soyuz would need to transfer its load to a more-heavily shielded transit device for the bulk of the trip.

        NASA would add the ESA Thales ATV-adaptation plus a Bigelow unit for the longer Martian trip. They are researching keeping most/all of the astronauts 'asleep' for the trip, to minimize the need for highly shielded transport.

        1. Tom 13

          Re: Competing with Soyuz...

          While he was full-arsed about it, at the heart of his comment is the same criticism I immediately thought of and which has already been posted: This is a lousy way to plan the Mars mission.

          A proper mission should come in three phases:

          1. Surface of Earth to Mars transport vehicle.

          2. Mars transport vehicle to Mars orbit.

          3. Mars orbit to surface of Mars.

          Then reverse it all to come home.

          Doing it this way saves the trouble of landing a 10 ton object traveling at moon shot speeds on the surface of the planet. You just use a Dragon or Soviet lift vehicle for which the tech is already proven. The basic R&D work could then focus on the Transport vehicle, which is where the real challenges lie. And, if you construct that outside of the Earth's atmosphere and gravity well, a fair number of obstacles go away. You can trade mass for shielding without the fuel load for lifting from Earth. Maybe you can work with some of the exotic thrust ideas that have been proposed where you generate continuous low thrust for the entire journey, reducing total time because you don't spend 90%+ of the journey coasting. I'd think the essentials for the Mars lander are already solved from a combination of the lunar landers and the Dragon vehicles, but there might still be some scale issues there.

          1. Beachrider

            Re: Competing with Soyuz...

            NASA doesn't appear to agree, perhaps you know more...

            NASA wants to 'sleep' the people within Orion for the trip. The CSM and other transit device would give supplies and issue-response mechanisms, as needed.

            Nothing wrong with using a separate craft when Mars orbit is achieved, though.

          2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

            Re: Competing with Soyuz...

            Tom 13,

            I don't think your solution works. We simply don't have the technology to build anything in space. And we're not even close. The ISS was assembled, but mostly that was just bolting big stuff together. Plus a bit of plumbing. So everything on the main ship that drives to Mars is going to be built in modules on Earth, then lifted to orbit. So in order to have heavy shielding we're going to have use an absurdly large number of launches to get it up there, and then huge amounts of time doing the final assembly in orbit.

            I agree that some sort of electric plasma engine is probably the way to go, and it would seem sensible to spend money on our big ship, as it can be continually refurbished and reused. Even if you had to launch another engine module from Earth every time it came back here, rather than trying to refurb the old one.

            However, one of the arguments from the article is to use the Orion capsule as a lifeboat. If it can cope with high velocities for landing, then you might have a viable emergency return home option. If something horrible goes wrong with the main ship on the way to Mars, or even the way back, nothing is likely to be able to carry the fuel to decelerate you to Earch orbital speed so you can rendevouz with a landing craft. But being less massive than the main ship, you might be able to get within a sane speed to survive aeorbraking. Now it's possible that a Dragon 3 could do this as well, but I believe Dragon 2 is only designed for orbital re-entry speeds. Although Dragon ought to be a better bet for landing on Mars, as it's designed to land on dry land on its jets.

            I think my idea would be to have several multi-purpose craft for all the landings, then a ship to do the long-haul bit that carries them and their fuel between planets. So a bigger Dragon, with better radiation shielding, and better heat shields. That way you've got more options if things go wrong. But it might make more sense to have separate Mars landers.

            However I'm not sure Mars is the right question. It seems to me we need fuel and consumables. So capturing an asteroid seems a far better long term plan. That also saves a lot of the difficulties of landing on Mars. Although if we could use Mars as an excuse to build a ship to get us around the solar system, then I guess it would be a good first step.

            1. MacroRodent Silver badge

              Re: Competing with Soyuz...

              So in order to have heavy shielding we're going to have use an absurdly large number of launches to get it up there

              The radiation refuge for the crew (where they would sleep and otherwise spend as much of their time as possible) could be a polyethylene sphere some metres across inside and with 2m walls (some article or other on SciAm suggested that is enough). The weight of this component is in the 100's of tons, could be launched in 2..3 parts on existing launchers. This sphere could of course be reused on multiple flights.

              1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

                Re: Competing with Soyuz...


                That's interesting, I'd not read about that as a radiation shielding option. I'd imagine that still puts our ship in the range of 10-20 launches (including, consumables, flight and assembly crews) - so the Earth-to-orbit costs alone are going to be somewhere between $5bn and $20bn.

                Although hopefully this will be a re-usable asset.

              2. No, I will not fix your computer

                Re: Competing with Soyuz...

                >>The weight of this component is in the 100's of tons, could be launched in 2..3 parts on existing launchers. This sphere could of course be reused on multiple flights.

                100's of tons? so that's at least 200 tons, a minimum of four Falcon launches, but that's to LEO, it costs a lot more fuel to get it past LEO.

                To have any Mars mission, you need "Orbital Propellant Depots" and it's a whole new set of challenges, you'll vent a bare minimum of 3% a month (and that's the current theoretical best).

                I'm really excited by Mars, but the US approach is very much a political one, employment and the big "Mars" ticket, the Chinese approach doesn't need this, so they are going to the Moon, they will be building bases and staging, perhaps harvesting He-3, I suspect that they will be on Mars while the US is still planning.

    2. Vulch

      Re: Wow.

      Going through the belts is really a side issue, what they want to do is give the heat shield a good thrashing and for that the higher you go the faster the re-entry is. For LEO you're going around 17,500mph when you hit atmosphere, coming back from the moon or beyond it's more like 25,000mph.

  7. Gene Cash Silver badge

    I wonder if this'll be like "we flew an SRB all by itself" ARES 1-X? I have a nice shirt pin from that, but it was about the only lasting effect of that program.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    oxygen regeneration?

    Water for drinking......bathing......How long will it take to get to Mars again?

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I've got a brilliant name for the mission

    are you ready........Capricorn One! don't matter thats its all bullshit, at least its keeping people in a job, and thats all that matters.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Once its been through Van Allens belt.. be doubly sure that its space worthy, send it once round Van Morrisons Braces!

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Once its been through Van Allens belt..

      Not forgetting Van Halen's jockstrap and Lily Allen's interference LOS...

  11. Stevie Silver badge


    No, it doesn't fly, it plummets.

    It is intended to plummet slightly off-center so that the air flow over the cone produces lift on one side so you can steer it if you are lucky.

    A bit.

    And this isn't new because they were doing this with Apollo and Gemini and for all I know Mercury too, though I have no actual knowledge about that one and can't be bothered to look it up for you.

    But flying, it ain't, unless you are a skydiver (Skydivers also refer to steerable plummeting as flying).

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Re: Bah!

      "And this isn't new because they were doing this with Apollo and Gemini and for all I know Mercury too"

      And they're still doing it with Soyuz on every flight (except when they have a short-circuit in the auto-pilot and then perform a "ballistic" landing, which presumably refers to the condition of the crew members' balls after the event).

    2. TitterYeNot

      Re: Bah!

      "No, it doesn't fly, it plummets."

      True, it is a very plummety style of flying, but it's distinctly different to just dropping like a stone.

      Ablative re-entry vehicles are shaped to act as lifting bodies when they hit the atmosphere at the correct angle, and will follow a shallower path than if they were on a ballistic trajectory and so encounter significantly gentler deceleration (i.e. about 50%.)

      Ask a cosmonaut who's just been through an 8-10 G ballistic Soyuz re-entry if they can tell the difference (it has happened a couple of times when they've got it slightly wrong) and they're likely to throw the empty bottle of vodka at you once they've downed it in one gulp...

      1. Stevie Silver badge

        Re: Bah!

        See, the *thing* about flying is that it involves going horizontally at a sustained altitude. It can be a very low altitude, but to be classed as flying it has to be sideways and not downwards. Ask the people who won the X-prize for doing it under human power.

        Going extremely fast downwards is not flying. It is plummeting.

        The lift on your "lifting body" is not lift *upwards* as many would naturally assume, but lift *sideways* and it ain't very much lift.

        Your cosmonaut is saved by the shallow angle of initial re-entry as much as by the "lifting-body" design of the Soyuz, and by the fact that some of the air it is hitting is spilling past the tilted heat shield instead of piling up against it.

        Admittedly the lift helps stop the angle becoming steeper, faster, but it is still an outright lie to call this "flying".

        Unless you are using the word in its more informal sense, to convey high speed, as in: "I was flying down the motorway in my TR6" or "Canonballs were flying past our ears". I'll readily concede that dropping from orbit in meteoric re-entry (the real name for it, look it up) is, in that sense, flying.

        And tipping the capsule up a bit to make it steerable still isn't some new science trick pulled out of a hat by Team Orion.

        1. Graham Dawson Silver badge

          Re: Bah!

          Falling with style, then.

          1. Stevie Silver badge

            Re: Falling with style, then.


        2. Adrian Midgley 1


          So the ISS is flying?

          The essence of flying is that it uses aerodynamic forces to control direction.

          Hence the altitude at which spaceflight (as NASA seem to call it) supplants atmospheric flight (at that altitude the speed required to fly on aerodynamic lift exceeds the orbital speed).

          1. Stevie Silver badge

            Re: Flying...

            "So the ISS is flying?"

            No. it is endlessly falling (until it brushes the atmosphere too hard and no-one gives it a kick). Then the "endlessly" part stops being true.

            "The essence of flying is that it uses aerodynamic forces to control direction."

            The essence of flying is that it uses aerodynamic forces to stay aloft. Those early glider flights were made with no provision for maneuvering, but are still real flying.

            "Hence the altitude at which spaceflight (as NASA seem to call it) supplants atmospheric flight (at that altitude the speed required to fly on aerodynamic lift exceeds the orbital speed)."

            This is scientists defining a point at which it stops being their fault and starts being someone else's. In space no-one flies. They float, they fall. They go in straight lines (or would if spaceflight were a real technology with proper support so the space ships could get out of the twisted geometry of the earth-moon system and go somewhere interesting). So they go in parabolas. Which is another way of saying they plummet I guess.

            Wish I could have a go, but one of the other ways in which my Dad's generation failed us was in not having the vision to match the books in Parkgate Infant's School library. I was supposed to be holidaying on the Moon by now, having also visited the wheel-shaped space station in a proper orbit waaaay out of the reach of the atmosphere.

            Interesting to note that the record for the "highest" orbit from the earth is still held by Charles Conrad and Richard Gordon, who grabbed the prize in a Gemini capsule (an entire line of capsule-rethink technology that was abandoned for the more primitive Apollo) in 1966, and that the record for most times in space stands at just 7 flights.

  12. x 7

    that rocket looks like a giant Dewar vessel

    did someone have a rethink on how to store cyogenic fuel???

  13. Daz555

    Space travel going back to the 60s. Warms the heart hey!

  14. LDS Silver badge


    Heath shields? It looks to me Apollo ones worked pretty well. Fifty years ago. Space Shuttle tiles as well, as long as they weren't hurt from some pieces from the main tank. Thirty years ago.

    It's really difficult to find something interesting in this Apollo with LCD panels and better computers... and they removed also fuel cells.... next time they will be excited to use a Lox/LH2 rocket engine?

    SpaceX vehicles are far more interesting, having rockets and capsule trying to be able to get back and land on a platform.

    Maybe it's time to hire better engineers at NASA, the actual ones looks to be rummaging in old archives to copy some old hand made bluepritns into their CAD systems...

    1. x 7

      Re: Yaaaaaaaawnnnnnnn.....

      "Maybe it's time to hire better engineers at NASA"

      Too late......they all retired when NASA stopped building shuttles, and no-one got properly trained to replace them. Another technology lost to the third world (or in process of being lost....)

      1. cray74

        Re: Yaaaaaaaawnnnnnnn.....

        "Too late......they all retired when NASA stopped building shuttles,"

        Quite a few of them moved to Lockheed-Martin, actually, since the shuttle was run by the United Space Alliance, a venture partly owned by Lockheed. The LM Missiles & Fire Control branch in Orlando is littered with "NASA" shuttle expats, and I'm sure LM's space division picked up a bunch.

    2. AbelSoul
    3. Stevie Silver badge

      Re: Yaaaaaaaawnnnnnnn.....

      Apollo heat shields and shuttle tiles are using very different principles to protect the craft from the heat of meteoric re-entry.

      The shuttle defense was to keep the heat away by insulating the craft.

      The Apollo approach was to carry the heat away as vaporized iron (and to insulate the capsule from the heat of the melting iron with a weird caulk-like substance, but that is oodles easier to do than keeping the total heat load away from the people because of the realities of latent heat of vaporization and like that). Apollo also had a layer of oak between the astronauts' backs and the weird caulk stuff in case all that failed because it turns out that charred oak is a very good heat insulator.

  15. johnB

    Why a heat shield?

    As one who watched Neil Armstrong make his "one small step...", what I've never figured out or had explained to me is just why we need the heat shield at all. Surely the craft could just spend longer gliding to earth?

    Any commentards able to indicate just why or where I can find the answer appreciated.

    1. AbelSoul

      Re: Any commentards able to indicate just why or where I can find the answer

      There's a bit of discussion on that here.

    2. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: Why a heat shield?

      'cos you hit the atmosphere at 25 thousand miles an hour.

      That's VERY fast

      You need a heat shield since the amount of energy you are losing (from the Kinetic form) is massive, and guess how it all ends up (hint. heat)

      If you don't have a heat shield (well, look at STS-107) then the vehicle disintegrates, because any "non specialist" material is liquid, and liquids aren't known for their great structural strength.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why a heat shield?

      I imagine you're thinking that theoretically you could approach the atmosphere at a very shallow angle? Two problems with that, one you will simply bounce off it like a stone skipping on a lake, and two even if that didn't happen, you'll have a hell of a lot of lateral momentum which is just as bad for generating heat/friction (not to mention being a serious problem if you still have it when you're ready to land)

      The only way to avoid the need for a heat shield would be to slow down before re-entry. That means carrying a hell of a lot of additional fuel, with the resulting problems in lifting all that extra fuel off the ground when you first launch.

      1. johnB

        Re: Why a heat shield?

        Thanks folks - all a bit clearer now.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Why a heat shield?

        Launch additional.fuel into a dockable trajectory (complete with retro booster).and use that to decelerate.

        Of course if the relative trajectories are off and the docking doesn't happen then the day will end poorly ...

    4. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Re: Why a heat shield?

      "Surely the craft could just spend longer gliding to earth?"

      Yes, that's true but only if the spacecraft has enough fuel reserve so that it can slow itself down before beginning of aerobraking. The problem is that you need to bring that fuel all the way from Earth and that means you need a bigger rocket to start with.

      Given that the Saturn V was the biggest rocket available and that it was already loaded to capacity with other stuff - like the Apollo craft itself, people, scientific equipment, consumables - the luxury of a longer powered braking was simply not available.

    5. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Why a heat shield?


      What it seems to amount to is that this is the only way down, while we're launching stuff into space from Earth. One of the best reasons to go grab an asteroid and mine it, would be to get consumables like water/amonia/whatever. In orbit you've got virtually free electricity from your solar panels, so if you've got chemicals then you can get oxygen to breathe, water to drink (and grow plants) and nitrogen for atmosphere and fertilizer. If you've got water and electricity you've also got hydrogen and oxygen - i.e. rocket fuel.

      If we could just get that sort of bulky stuff in space, rather than boosting it up from earth, then all sorts of things in space become much more feasible. As well as a lot less expensive, and a bit less dangerous. At that point we could have re-usable spaceplanes that refuel in orbit and can then slow down from orbital speeds before entering the atmosphere. Some horrific percentage of the shuttle's weight was heat-shield, and an even more horrific percentage was fuel.

      We have these fundamental design problems that dog everything that we do. All the weight you carry up from earth must be accelerated to orbital speeds (17,500 mph ish). And the more you carry, the more fuel you need to launch it, and the more fuel you carry, the more fuel you need to lift that fuel. Which is why we mostly throw away bits of our rockets on the way up. And of course, to come back down, you have to lose that 17,500 mph somehow. Currently that's by aerobraking.

      Now you could do like aeroplanes, and use lift to help get you up to a good height, before heading for space, but even then you need rockets for once you run out of atmosphere. And then you have to carry these, plus your jets, plus fuel for both, and a heat shield, as you can't carry enough fuel to slow down.

      So Virgin's (Scaled Composite's really) design is to use well understood jet technology to carry their space plane to 50,000 feet. That saves loads of weight, and hassle. Then the spaceplane does the rest. Currently they're just after sub-orbital joyrides - but I presume they can also carry a smaller rocket to boost a satellite, instead of passengers with another design. I don't know if you can make a big enough carrier plane to carry a space vehicle with the weight of fuel and shielding to get a useful payload to orbit. But I'd be surprised if that's not possible.

      Option 2 is what SpaceX are doing. Make rockets cheaper. No-one's seriously done re-designs on this stuff since the 60s/70s. So they dumped horrible chemicals or hard to handle liquid hydrogen. Instead they're using liquid oxygen and kerosene. Nice money saving. Then they're planning to land the first stage of their rockets instead of dumping them. So you carry a little more fuel, then land them and re-use.

      Third is Reaction Engines. They're the old HOTOL lot, still going, but now Skylon. Use a SABRE engine that works like a jet at low speeds, then gets up to supersonic RAMJET speeds, and then will have to use stored oxygen once the atmosphere's too thin.

      Oh, and there's an XKCD for everything apparently: linky

  16. wiggers

    To boldly architect...

    Since when did architect become a verb?

    "we’ve architected it to have as much natural shielding from the structure and the components that are inside"

    "so that you don’t need to architect a path around planets"

    1. AbelSoul

      Re: when did architect become a verb?

      Probably around the same time as "action".

      As in, "Which one of you tadgers actioned the verbalisation of architect?"

      (I know that makes no sense but it seems little needs to these days.)

  17. Anonymous Custard Silver badge


    So even in the early stages of this vehicle, we’ve architected it to have as much natural shielding from the structure and the components that are inside

    What's wrong with "designed", "created" or possibly even "built"? Since when did we run out of stocks of those words and so have to press-gang and bend job titles and any other randomly grabbed word into being verbs?

    Or should we all now be keyboarding our comments here before going down the pub to glass our pints?

    1. Gordon 10 Silver badge

      Re: Architected?

      Of course that pint needed glassing - it looked at me bird all wrong.

    2. Fatman

      Re: Architected?

      Some commentard wrote:

      So even in the early stages of this vehicle, we’ve architected it to have as much natural shielding from the structure and the components that are inside

      Followed by:

      What's wrong with "designed", "created" or possibly even "built"?

      Buzzword bingo at work!

      1. cortland

        Re: Architected?

        Nah; the writers are paid by the syllababababble.

    3. Graham Dawson Silver badge

      Re: Architected?

      Perhaps they engineered it. Oh wait that was a noun that became a verb (before being a verb that became a noun), I guess we can't use that. Did they oversee the build? Oh wait that's a verb that became a noun too! Why it's almost like language changes over time!

      Object if you like (lord knows I do) but don't act like it's some new thing. It's how language came to even exist.

  18. TheOtherMatt


    That picture halfway down the article is rather unusual, obiovuly not done by someone with a clue; the capsule, the moon and the earth all have different light sources.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Misses the real issue

    "We don’t know much about radiation shielding and protecting humans, frankly..."

    The problem isn't the VARB, it's the intense ambient radiation from the Sun and extrasolar cosmic rays that humans would be exposed to once they got past low-Earth orbit that's the real issue. At the moment no one has an answer for that in production. An Orion crew could survive a few months at most outside the protection of Earth's magnetic field. What's really needed is a magnetic sheild that a craft would generate itself, but Orion's power systems wouldn't come close to providing the energy required for that -- even after we figure out how to generate make such a sheild (which is probably decades off). The other popular option is to use an envelope filled with water or waste to surround a ship's occupants with a protective layer. I think they've estimated they'd need around a meter deep of water or ice for that, again clearly outside Orion's "architecture". Maybe they could mine for lead on the Moon or in the Asteroid Belt and use mass drivers to get it into orbit for melting down and forming into protective plating, but then you're back to the problem of accelerating (and decelerating) the spacecraft around the solar system with all that additional mass.

    Orion is a dumb idea. Always was. SpaceX's Falcon and other commercial craft can get us into low-Earth orbit. Deep space exploration is going to require a quantum leap in technology and the ships we build once that's in place are going to look more like 2001's fusion-powered Discovery than the Apollo CM.

    P.S. Learned recently that our solar system actually happens to be travelling through a particularly radioactively "hot" area of the Milky Way just now, making intersteller travel even more... unhealthy than interplanetary jaunts around the Sun. Point is, we've got a long way to go yet and there's a mountain of basic research that still needs to be done. The money wasted on Orion could be used for that kind of research, if our politicians could just look a bit past their own selfish ambitions.

  20. Mage Silver badge

    Project Orion

    We need the PROPER Orion spacecraft.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Project Orion

      OK. But only if they launch it from your back garden. And no cheating and going out when they launch either...

      1. Mage Silver badge

        Re: Project Orion

        I'd prefer if the "proper" Orion craft (which would do the trip so quickly that the only shielding consideration is from its propulsion) was launched well away from anyone. The middle of Pacific perhaps.

        Though maybe using conventional launchers for its parts and lighting the blue touch paper in LEO would be more acceptable.

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: Project Orion

          Though maybe using conventional launchers for its parts and lighting the blue touch paper in LEO would be more acceptable.

          Isn't that the wrong way round? Wasn't one idea for Orion that you could get some really stonkingly heavy stuff into orbit as a one-off, or at least not-too-often exercise. So you could launch space-factories, space-mining rigs or habitats as huge launches, and then do everything else with normal rockets.

          Obviously it's also a faster way round the solar system. But I'd have thought it would be too heavy to lift by normal means. After all, you need a really thick baseplate and some serious shock absorbers.

  21. Alistair

    'scuze me.

    Did someone ask for an elevator?

    But *until* then we'll still need to go this route. Orion and what both of the commercial entities are building are two different critters.

    Sure, we can just hop the bodies to LEO and pack them on the long range cannister. Why don't you try the *math* on that - you have to forklift all that freaking energy source up there so that you can kick the long range cannister in the ass. Or you might have to consider sending 10 year olds.

    And, in the long run we *still* aren't certain what that long range canister is going to look like or how it should be packed. Thus the testing with Orion bouncing around in a big fast loop and slapping back in fast and hard is worth doing so we know

    a) what the suntan will look like.

    b) what the skid in sideways will look like.

    And, to be utterly honest, even if it *didn't* make a great 12 to 20 minute video every 5 or 6 weeks or so up here, I'd still be all over supporting the ISS. And I've had a few great beers raised as it zinged by overhead at night.

  22. ZChris

    Related book read: The Martian by Andy Weir

    If this stuff facinates you (and it should)... be sure to check out The Martian.

    Not only one of the best general books I've read in ages, but totally believable *almost real sci-fi*. Geek/space writing at its very best! Highly recommended.

  23. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    It's sad. Obamacare-don't-care levels of sad

    When I hear "Orion" I want to see seriously Teller-tier nuclear propulsion in space, not a pork barrel cannon aimed at preferred suppliers by the Obama administration to make friends and buy regional support while keeping the greenery and kumbaya-feeling of environmentally sustainable space travel alive, meanwhile promising the impossible (go to Mars) and the seriously uninteresting (go to Moon).

    Nuke 'shroom as icon, of course.

  24. Matthew 17

    How much energy would you need....

    To produce your own magnetosphere for your craft, has to be lighter than adding in conventional 'shields'.

    Would make your ship glow as the solar wind hits it to entertain the crew during their trip to Mars

  25. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge


    Idly wondering why they need to land the full craft back on Earth when they return.

    Why not build a "lander" craft (or escape pod) for getting the astronauts and other stuff that they might have collected back on the ground, while leaving the rest of the ship up there in some sort of stable orbit?

    I was thinking of a spaceship shaped like a barbell (or juggling club) with most of the mass (fuel, shielding and so on) at one end and a much lighter escape vehicle at the other end. When it would get near enough to home, they could turn off the main engines and use thrusters designed to set the "dumbbell" rotating end over end. If they could make the main shaft strong enough to survive the centrifugal force (and torsional force) then by releasing the escape craft from one end at the right moment it would get a slingshot effect and reduce its overall approach velocity, potentially enough so that the lander wouldn't need such big heat shields or the need for complex aero-braking.

    I guess that whether this could work would depend mostly on whether the whole assembly could spin fast enough for the velocity reduction to be worth it. There's also the issue of extra fuel required to overcome the rotational inertia, but that could be somewhat offset by shifting the centre of mass closer to the middle of the ship while it's en route (in effect losing some forward thrust and converting it into letting the front part fall back into a more central position). With more of the mass concentrated in the centre, the moment of inertia would be reduced so it would be easier to set up the spin. I guess that another problem is that the re-entry craft will still be spinning when it arrives, but maybe the aerodynamics of a spherical pod attached to a long strut would be enough to right the orientation so that it will lose its rotation in the atmosphere and always land pod side down (like a dandelion seed).

    As for the part that remained in orbit, its rate of spin could be reduced simply by redistributing the mass again (letting it fly out from the centre) and then using thrusters set in a counter-rotating direction. Solar-powered ion thrusters would reduce spin slowly, but it should be enough since there'd probably be long periods of time between returning and wanting to use the craft again, so the time taken to wind down shouldn't matter too much. Or have any docking ship match the rotation like the Coriolis docking sequence in Elite. The whole thing could be recovered later and re-used, with a huge saving in fuel since it doesn't have to be relaunched from Earth.

    Maybe these ideas are just pie in the sky. I blame playing too many computer games (Thrust, Elite) as a kid.

  26. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    "we’ve architected"

    No you didn't, you designed and bullt. There's no such word as architected.

    "architect a path around planets"

    Oh FFS!!! If you're going to use made up words at least try to make it mean the same thing each time you use it.. It's not frikken' rocket science!

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So I get the whole 'return to earth in an emergency' idea.....but in practice? You're hurtling through space towards an interception with mars, you can't just stop, turn round, and go back, it's still going to take months. I guess it's better than no return capability, but really, if you have a problem out there....

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