The essential technology America's space-shuttle astronauts depend on, which almost no one outside NASA knows about, is paper. Not just a file folder of vital checklists but actual piles of paper—stacks and stacks of it. Every minute of flight, every experiment, every space walk, is scripted. The routines are rehearsed in advance, manuals in laps, over and over. The loose-leaf sheets—called FDFs, or flight data files—are organized into functional sets, held together with three metal rings.
When the day comes to pull on the orange go-to-space suits, the paper goes too—250 pounds of it. Astronauts, strapped in for launch, have critical FDFs Velcroed to their legs for easy access. When you're hurling a 30-year-old spaceship into orbit, some things are not going to feel particularly space-age; hauling along your stacks of paper is definitely one of them.
The United States is long overdue for a new spaceship. The last time NASA's engineers sat down to design one—the space shuttle—it was 1974, and George W. Bush hadn't yet received his MBA from Harvard, or met Laura; the
Almost everything that matters in the world of technology and flight has changed since then: computing power, materials science, electronics, communications. Imagine if you hadn't designed something as prosaic as a car since 1974—before common use of fuel injectors, air bags, cup holders, not to mention engine-control computers and onboard navigation. A new model would likely be loaded with techno-wizardry.
Yet for NASA and
That is, if the grocery store is on the moon. Orion is part of a larger program called Constellation, which is backed by a Jimmy Neutron—esque slogan: "To the moon, Mars, and beyond." NASA envisions Orion launching a new era of American space exploration, with people living on the moon as soon as the early 2020s. The Honda Odyssey minivan is not a bad metaphor for NASA's hopes for Orion: reliable, functional, thoughtfully designed, with more utility than glamour.
That's what the shuttle has never been, despite its ambitions. The shuttle was sold as a space truck that would handle large cargo loads and launch twice a month. Yet in the past decade, the shuttle has averaged just four flights a year. Its systems are so temperamental that taking it to orbit has turned out to be like driving to the Grand Canyon, spending a week examining the safety of your tires and engine, then turning back and driving home with just a glance over the canyon's edge. Although the shuttle's key elements have been flying for 25 years, its technology has never moved from cutting-edge to manageable. NASA has spent a generation worrying not about where we're going in space, but about handling the capricious vehicle we're flying.
Designing any new spacecraft requires relentless innovation. But sometimes the better part of innovation is not invention, but effectiveness. And therein lies the challenge for Orion, and for the engineers designing it. NASA and Lockheed Martin must find the discipline to produce a straightforward spaceship, with a clear mission and mature technology. And they must do it by 2015, with a total budget of only $8 billion—the equivalent of six weeks' expenses in Iraq.
But Orion will hardly be primitive. Those stacks of paper the astronauts depend on, for example: They're being banished. The beloved FDFs and all the procedures they outline are being built into Orion's onboard computers. But the really remarkable things are the computers themselves. The shuttle's computers had to be custom-designed. Orion's computers use existing Honeywell technology. They are fifth-generation aerospace avionics boxes, with millions of hours of real-world experience, the same computers pilots use to fly Boeing 777s, hardened against vibration and radiation for the rigors of space flight.
Says Larry Price, a Lockheed engineer who is second-in-command of creating Orion: "We spent nothing to develop them." He's smiling. How sweet it is in the year 2007 to be designing a new rocket ship, look around, and buy the computers to fly to the moon off-the-shelf.
Building 9 of Houston's Johnson Space Center is a vast training facility with a ceiling three stories up and a floor crowded with full-size spacecraft mock-ups—the shuttle, the International Space Station. Everywhere people are using the mock-ups to train for future missions. In one corner, an astronaut in a prototype moon/Mars space suit is doing an endurance test, carting wheelbarrows of rocks up an incline, monitored by a half-dozen attendants. Tucked between space-station modules sits a squat white cone not much larger than a medium-size family camping tent and made mostly of plywood and plastic: This is the full-size Orion crew-capsule mock-up.
Duck through the hatch and have a seat in the capsule, and the functional austerity of Orion becomes vivid. It is designed to carry six people to the space station, or four to the moon. With six metal seat frames bolted in place, there is no open floor space. The capsule feels snug with four people inside; none of us are wearing space suits.
A spot has been carved out for the toilet, tucked to one side, just below floor level. For privacy, it will have a wraparound curtain. It's definitely a step up from Apollo—which relied on adhesive plastic bags—but, really, no more private than the third row of a minivan.
During the 1960s, NASA commanded an army of 400,000 people who were furiously designing and building Apollo— three times the number of Americans deployed in Iraq. Today, at Lockheed Martin, there are 1,600 people working on Orion, supported by another 600 at NASA. Overall, Constellation uses fewer than 5% of the number of people Apollo did.
During the '60s, NASA commanded an army of 400,000 people who were building Apollo. Today, Constellation uses fewer than 5% of that number.
Bill Johns is a senior manager for Lockheed, which won the $8 billion contract to build Orion in August 2006, over a joint team from
The question is central to Orion's unusual design philosophy. For every challenge facing Orion's engineers, there is a simple mantra: Borrow or buy before you invent.
That is, borrow technology NASA has already used, if it works. Buy technology from the commercial world that has been introduced in the past three decades, technology NASA didn't have to pay to develop or debug. And if you can't find a solution in stock or off the shelf, only then do you go into the NASA workshop and mix up something new. Everything is ultimately adapted for Orion, but the resourcefulness provides two things the manned space program needs: efficiency and confidence.
"Does paying attention to Apollo limit our thinking?" Johns asks. "Yes, it does. But I don't have any lack of young engineers coming up with great new solutions to problems—I get eight or nine of those for every problem. Engineers love to reinvent things. I use that question to make sure the engineers have actually checked to see what [their predecessors'] solution was."
Examples of NASA borrowing from its own heritage are everywhere. Orion will use a hatch design nearly identical to Apollo's. It will be launched on a solid rocket adapted from the shuttle.
Orion's parachute system, too, will be almost identical to Apollo's. "I've read all the reports I can find from that time," says Koki Machin, who leads the Orion parachute group at NASA. "They wrote reports out the wazoo. They did a really good job with parachutes." Machin's changes are small: The heavier Orion will use newer material and a larger diameter, and the chutes will be tethered to Orion with something light, strong, and pliable like Kevlar, instead of recalcitrant braided steel cable. Orion is even buying the parachutes from the descendant company that made Apollo's. They were a cutting-edge technology for Apollo, developed by a "parachute branch" that employed dozens of people. Machin's team consists of five, including him.
When Orion's engineers tackle a particular design problem, they typically do something called a "trade study," in which they look beyond NASA's workshops, scanning the horizon for new solutions. So, for instance, there are two competing materials for Orion's heat shield, which must protect the capsule and the astronauts upon reentry. The first is the original heat-shield material from Apollo, which is heavy and tedious to apply but can be used in a relatively thin layer. The second, developed in the past decade, is lighter and easier to handle but requires a thicker layer. In a NASA lab in Houston, engineers have spent the past two years evaluating the materials by blasting them in giant furnaces that can create temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees. They expect to make a choice this spring.
In space, Orion will get its power not from heavy fuel cells but from two circular solar panels that will unfurl on either side of the ship in space. The panels are round versions of commercial solar panels used routinely in communication and military satellites. As the performance of solar panels improves, new versions can be swapped onto Orion.
Seats for the astronauts are a surprisingly complicated problem. The seats need to be light and easily stowed once in space. They will be mounted on shock absorbers that allow them to cushion the impact when Orion bumps back to earth. Unlike Apollo, Orion will return to land, not water. Its final touchdown will be absorbed by huge air bags. But in the event that, say, one of the parachutes fails, the seats must help protect the crew. For advice on designing impact-absorbing seats, NASA has turned to NASCAR, of all outfits, which in the last few years has developed technology that restrains race car drivers and helps prevent serious injuries when their cars slam into track walls at high speed.
Every design project—a new
Orion—service module, capsule, escape tower—must weigh no more than 50,250 pounds. The resulting cascade of trade-offs touches almost everything. There is an ongoing wrangle, for example, about whether Orion will have a water heater so astronauts can make coffee each morning—a slim connection to normalcy. Apollo had one, the shuttle has one. Is there room in Orion's "weight envelope" for a water heater? What are you willing to give up to have hot coffee during a 7- to 21-day mission?
Even something as fundamental as windows depends on your perspective. Spacecraft windows have been an issue at NASA since the days of Mercury in the early '60s. Engineers would just as soon create Orion's capsule without windows. That's the strongest, most efficient way to design a spacecraft's structure and skin. The astronauts would prefer a pair of bay windows. That's the way to ensure vital visibility during launch, landing, and orbital maneuvering. Although Orion's flight will typically be automated, astronauts crave a sense of "situational awareness," the ability to orient themselves spatially, physically. That is critical when things start to go wrong. As astronaut Edward Lu told Orion's designers, "I'll trade food for larger windows."
Yet one square foot of spacecraft window—three panes of quartz glass—weighs more than a square foot of metal hull. Every inch of window is weight that has to be shaved somewhere else.
Blaine Brown is the Lockheed engineer in charge of designing the crew capsule. He is so passionate about aeronautical design that he went out and earned a pilot's license—so he'd have a taste of what it's like to fly—and applied to be an astronaut in the class of 2000. Brown's designers delivered an initial Orion capsule with four main windows, two over the control panel, two on either side of it.
Astronauts assigned to consult on Orion's design didn't like the windows. They were, astronaut Lee Morin says, "like looking through a mail slot"—with no view of the horizon and unsatisfactory views for docking. The astronauts originally suggested larger windows that added 80 pounds—to a spacecraft already 5,000 pounds over its limit.
Fortunately, there was a perfect arena to play out the window debate in Houston, and it illuminates the pragmatic culture that has sprung up around the Orion project. Squirreled away in a corner of Building 16 at Johnson sits the ROC (reconfigurable operational cockpit), a bare-bones Orion-capsule simulator. It is the creation of Michael Red and Alberto Sena, two NASA engineers who have worked on shuttle simulators for years and pulled together the ROC without anyone asking for it. "We just did it," Sena says. "We're trying to provide an immersion environment to aid the design."
The ROC includes just a small slice of Orion interior, made of white Masonite and simple aluminum framing. An ordinary bar stool with a blue-cloth seat pulls up to the control panel. Dangling overhead is a ping-pong ball on a thread. Adjust the height of the barstool so the ball rests on the bridge of your nose, pull your barstool up to the command console, and you get an astronaut's-eye view through the windows, behind which a computer plays a launch simulation on a big screen. Astronauts and designers were able to see what each of the 20 different versions of window configurations would show at critical stages of a mission.
This simple skunkworks took the guesswork out of designing the windows. "We were able to tweak them a little bit and get a lot more performance," Brown says. Because Orion is double-hulled (with an inner pressure shell and an outer thermal shell), the deep frames were blocking the view to each side. The astronauts were so determined to evaluate the views, Red says, that during simulations they'd end up sticking their heads right through the window holes to look around. Eventually, the windows were repositioned, and the frames were flared along the ship's hull to open up the field of view.
Total weight increase: 27 pounds. Total cost: little more than a few trips to Home Depot.
Space is a hard, unforgiving place. It will find the flaws—in thinking, in design, in human nature.
Spacecraft design is unforgiving in another important way—politically. There are plenty of critics of the course chosen by NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who since taking over in 2005 appears to be trying to get NASA to face reality: a dangerous, unreliable shuttle that is costing billions a year to keep flying; no replacement ready to take humans into space; insufficient money for robotic space science; surging space competition from other nations (notably China and India) and the private sector.
For decades, NASA's bosses and engineers have been scorched for shuttle flaws, most the result of design choices that pushed the technological envelope. Now criticism is already mounting for Constellation's perceived lack of ambition. To Griffin, Orion and Constellation are the way to get back to the business of space exploration in a rational way. "We don't have an infinite amount of money," Griffin said in a 2005 interview, as he was tightening the program's focus and timelines. "What we have is a specific task we're trying to perform, and I'm trying to do that in the simplest, cheapest, easiest, most prudent way possible."
"Space will be explored and exploited by humans," Griffin told Congress that year. "The question is, which humans, from where, and what language will they speak? It is my goal that Americans will be always among them."
Griffin is betting that Orion can become the symbol of a mature space program—one in which it's the destination that matters, not the transportation. The country hardly seems aware of this critical juncture, not just in 50 years of spaceflight but in 200 years of American exploration. If Orion does not succeed, Americans will be left grounded, for the first time in history simply shrugging at the frontier.
If Orion does not succeed, Americans will be left grounded, for the first time in history simply shrugging at the frontier.
Orion and Constellation can't come soon enough. NASA has said that the three space shuttles will be retired at the end of 2010; Orion is scheduled for its first manned flight in early 2015. So if everything goes perfectly, there will be a nearly five-year gap during which the U.S. will not be able to launch its own astronauts without outside help.
Launch Pad 39-B, at Kennedy Space Center, is one of only two equipped to launch manned rockets. Up close, Pad 39-B is testament to how brutal, even primitive, our approach to space remains. The grounds of the pad encompass 40 acres of scrub brush along the Atlantic Ocean, and much of the 40 acres is blackened by each shuttle launch. Most of the smoke you see in a shuttle launch is actually steam. Starting 17 seconds before launch, a water tower cuts loose 300,000 gallons of water onto the launch pad. The water has nothing to do with heat; it acts as a sound damper. The noise from the shuttle's engines is so powerful that without the protective deluge, the shock waves would bounce off the launch pad, ricochet up, and tear the spaceship apart as it ascends. Astronauts ride a controlled explosion to orbit.
Pad 39-B has launched its share of historic missions, including the space shuttle Challenger, which killed seven astronauts. The first launch from 39-B was Apollo 10 —the formal dress rehearsal for Apollo 11 's landing on the moon—and it sent Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan to within 50,000 feet of the moon's surface. Coming home, the crew set what remains the record for the fastest manned vehicle: 24,791 miles per hour.
Pad 39-B could eventually inaugurate an era of less momentous but equally pioneering launches. It has been pulled from shuttle service and is already being rebuilt to launch Orion.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.