Ever since the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, landed more than three years ago, NASA has lacked a vehicle to send its own astronauts back into space. Current timelines put astronauts back in American-made rockets no sooner than 2021. The Orion mission that launched this morning [more specifically, Exploration Flight Test -1 (EFT-1)], is a huge milestone in NASA’s path back to the business of launching humans into space. It can’t be overstated: This mission is a BIG deal.
What is Orion?
Orion is NASA’s next generation of man-carrying spacecraft. It is chartered to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), lunar destinations, or even Mars. Orion is really only the top part of what was sitting on the launchpad earlier today. The uppermost section of Orion is the Launch Abort System, which completely enshrouds the 4-to-6 person Crew Module. Just below the conical Crew Module is the Service Module that provides thrust, power and provisions in space. The Orion-to-Stage Adapter mates Orion to the rocket it sits atop. In the case if EFT-1, that rocket was a Delta IV Heavy (currently the largest operational rocket in the world).
The genesis of Orion dates back to 2005 and the now-defunct Constellation program. When Constellation was cancelled in 2009, the Orion aspect of the program was retained for use in whatever program would come next. That program emerged in 2011 as Space Launch System (SLS). SLS is what will launch those astronauts in 2021.