The Apollo program, which sent a dozen men to the Moon, ended in 1972. It’s so long ago that fewer than half of all Americans are old enough to have watched one of its missions on live TV. Yet some of the technology behind Apollo is about to be brought out of retirement for NASA’s return to the Moon, scheduled for 2020.
The agency’s new system for traveling to Earth orbit, and later to the Moon and Mars, dubbed The Constellation Program, essentially duplicates the Moon mission technologies proposed by Wernher von Braun in the late 1950s and used in the Apollo program. For instance, it includes a multistage rocket similar to Apollo’s Saturn V, a crew vehicle similar to the Apollo command module, and a lunar lander directly based on the Apollo lander.
Last month, NASA chose aerospace giant Lockheed Martin to build the crew vehicle, called Orion. The craft’s cone-shaped crew module and cylindrical service module might have just arrived from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum–except they’re a bit larger than the Apollo versions, carrying four to six crew members instead of three.
Yet, according to Lockheed Martin officials, Orion will make the Apollo craft look like a Model T. Orion’s reentry system, for example, will incorporate knowledge gleaned from Lockheed’s recent Genesis and Stardust missions, which retrieved materials from comets. What’s more, the avionics software and equipment will be based on systems used in the newest passenger jets; and a new abort system will carry astronauts away from the main rockets in case of a Challenger-like launch disaster.
Patrick McKenzie is business development manager for the Orion project at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, CO. He talked with Technology Review on September 7 about the technologies–old and new–going into Orion.
Technology Review: What did aerospace engineers learn from Apollo that can be applied in the Orion project? And why does your design look so similar, at least superficially, to the Apollo command module and service module?
Patrick McKenzie: One of the most enduring things that Apollo got right was the aerodynamic shape of the capsule–which also happens to be the most visible element. One of the reasons NASA chose to go with the Apollo-type shape is the proven safety database that goes along with that. When you look at alternatives like lifting-body designs–space airplanes like the Shuttle–they provide things like additional cross-range [the ability to steer to different landing sites], but you are not able to fly them safely in the event that a control system goes offline. A ballistic reentry system like a capsule can return the crew safely in the event of a fault. But virtually everything else about this capsule is new technology–not necessarily bleeding-edge, but developed after Apollo.
TR: What are some of the most important new technologies, in your opinion?
PM: One of the major technology applications that is clearly going to be different with Orion is the automated rendezvous and docking capability. Orion will need to dock with the International Space Station and with the Earth Departure Stage [the rocket that will accelerate Orion out of Earth orbit to the Moon]. The Shuttle is manually docked, and Apollo obviously wasn’t automated. Orion will have manual override capability, but the vast majority of the time, there should be no need for a crew member to intervene.