Monday, December 29, 2014

Going Nuts in Orion to Mars?

The successful Orion test flight in early December focused attention on the Orion capsule’s role in future NASA missions beyond low earth orbit. Much of the discussion on the Internet has dealt with the necessity of Orion at all, and whether it could be replaced by one of the commercial crew vehicles NASA recently funded.

The on-line discussion is frequently sidetracked by the all-too-common misunderstanding that Orion will be the sole habitat for 4-6 astronauts on the 2-3 year Mars mission. I Googled “orion mars” and found a comment to a Gizmodo article wondering how 5 or 6 astronauts could spend months in such a tiny capsule heading for Mars—it was posted 2 days after the Orion test flight!

The short answer is: nobody expects anything of the sort. Orion is the astronauts’ taxicab from the launch pad in Florida to the Mars transit vehicle in earth orbit at the start of the mission, then again and most importantly for the high-speed entry into earth’s atmosphere at the end of the mission (see figure 1). This is well-established in the NASA Mars Design Reference Mission that describes the general characteristics of the 100 thousand pound habitat (ref. 1).
Figure 1. Mars mission scenario. See Orion's major usage at steps 7, 9 and 14

However, the misunderstanding was a central feature of the movie “Capricorn One” (1978) (ref. 2). This fictional story of a hoaxed Mars mission includes the image of the three astronauts spending long months inside their cramped Apollo command module en route to Mars.

The movie used accurate mockups of the Apollo capsule, the lunar lander and the space suits, very familiar to TV viewers from the moon landings only a few years earlier, but largely irrelevant to the Mars mission being portrayed. The producers knew that such familiarity could enhance the credibility of their story, encouraging the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.  The bizarre tale of a faked mission and a government cover-up that required the (spoiler alert!) murder of the astronauts themselves would then have seemed even more thrilling. 

But surely (I thought), no one could seriously believe that NASA would send highly-trained astronauts in peak physical condition on a multi-month trip to Mars in just an Apollo capsule, with no room for exercise or privacy, any more than that they would land on Mars using an unmodified, non-aerodynamic Apollo lunar module.  After all, the movie was an action adventure, not a documentary. 

Apparently I was wrong.  Now, over three decades later, when I lecture on the medical aspects of NASA’s planned exploration-class missions to Mars, lay and professional audiences alike still ask how the astronauts could really stay in such a small capsule for such a long flight without going nuts.  Of course, why should they know any better?  The Apollo astronauts went to the moon inside the command module, so why not all the way to Mars?  If the Mars trip takes 60 to 100 times longer, maybe it is just the price that the astronauts have to be willing to pay.  After I explain that the Mars transit vehicle would be much larger and roomier, everyone seems relieved that NASA wouldn’t be so inconsiderate of its high-value crewmembers. 

What is more surprising is how many space professionals also have that misunderstanding. Even NASA insiders were confused in 2004 when the Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV, was announced, whether it was the Mars transit craft that would house the six astronauts for the half-year transits to and from Mars, or just the capsule they rode in from Earth to the transit vehicle.  This confusion was exacerbated by the name: if it was just the taxicab, why was “exploration” part of its name? 

Back in October 2007, I lined up with NASA Johnson Space Center workers who waited patiently for a chance to sit inside the new, low-fidelity Orion mockup.  It was in the configuration with six seats, one of which was occupied by mannequins and another left empty.  When four of us—all space professionals but not engineers—were seated inside it, marveling at the close quarters, it quickly became clear that three of us actually thought this was the condition in which the six-person crew would make the six-month trip to Mars!

After a lecture at a space life sciences conference in February 2008, a long-time NASA employee—also not an engineer—confessed his relief that the crew wouldn’t be cooped up in the Orion for the long trip to Mars. Other NASA science managers have wondered the same thing, judging from comments I have frequently heard.

Not surprisingly, it is not just NASA people that are confused.  A well-informed science writer asked me the question during an interview some years ago.  About the same time, a retired astronaut sheepishly admitted that he thought the same, but added that he hadn’t kept up with the Mars vehicle design details.  I have also read a comment by a respected leader of a space advocacy organization who wondered how Orion’s life support system would support a crew en route to Mars.

Apparently the misunderstanding predates even Capricorn One. In 1966, Eric John Bishop felt it necessary to describe his work designing an underwater training mockup of what became the Skylab space station as supporting the development of a large vehicle for planetary missions, because the astronauts couldn’t be expected to stay in the Apollo for such a long durations (ref. 3).

In 2006, NASA gave the name Orion to the CEV, and in 2011 the acronym CEV was replaced by MPCV for Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Exploration was gone from the moniker but not from its mission; in fact, Orion was specifically focused on atmospheric entry at interplanetary speeds, and thus over-engineered and overpriced for anything less, as NASA managers have publicly confirmed. But the confusion remains.

Why do so many people seriously think that NASA would confine half a dozen astronauts in such a small space for six months or longer?  Why does that seem even remotely possible, let alone acceptable, to anyone who has imagined the effects of such confinement on the crew’s mental and physical health and on mission success? 

Part of the answer is probably unfamiliarity with the realities of long-duration spaceflight, at least among the general public. Another possibility became clear during the Orion flight test. Orion was described by the press as the vehicle that will take astronauts to the asteroids and Mars. Message boards were overflowing with confusion on that point. The official Orion fact sheet describes it as “this new spacecraft [that] will take us farther than we’ve gone before, including Mars” (ref. 4). And the Fall 2014 issue of Roundup (ref. 5), the self-described official publication of the Johnson Space Center, has a cover image of what is clearly a late-model design for Orion with what is clearly Mars in the background and with what is clearly no other vessel nearby (see figure 2). This constitutes an official graphic statement that Orion will at least operate near Mars alone, in direct contradiction to all NASA Mars DRM planning! Thus, NASA’s own messaging is misleading.

Figure 2. NASA Johnson Space Center Roundup showing Orion spacecraft all alone in Mars orbit.

That such a central feature of the NASA’s exploration architecture is so poorly grasped is troubling as well as surprising.  NASA has released high-quality animations of lunar and Mars mission scenarios, which are available on agency websites and on YouTube.  Program officials and industry experts have described the architecture in public presentations around the country. Still the misunderstanding persists.

Space flight sometimes seems inherently mystifying. For example, the physics of weightlessness are a mystery to many people who have never experienced it, and are frequently misrepresented in movies.  But most people working in space development venues do not require more than a passing knowledge of such things.  They understand enough to do their jobs well, and they leave the rest to other specialists. 

Human exploration of space promises great benefits but only at great risk and great expense. Any meaningful public debate of the costs and benefits should be based on reality, not misunderstanding.

  1. Drake, Bret G. (editor), Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0 (NASA/SP-2009-566), NASA, Washington, D.C., 2009, (accessed Dec. 23, 2014). See “bat chart” on page 5, and Mars Transit Vehicle description on p. 36.
  2. Capricorn One (, accessed Dec. 8, 2014).
  3. Bishop, E.J. Brooklyn, Buck Rogers and Me. iUniverse, Inc., 2003, (accessed Dec. 23, 2014).
  4. Orion spacecraft overview, NASA, 2012.  (, accessed Dec. 8, 2014).
  5. Roundup, Fall 2014, (accessed Dec. 23, 2014).

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Tale of Two Martins

Back in 2008, while trolling for obscure space history trivia in back issues of Aviation Week, I found a good one from 1965: a black and white illustration (figure 1) from The Martin Marietta Corporation of a lifting body rescue vehicle coming to the aid of an Apollo spacecraft that had somehow become stranded in low Earth orbit (ref. 1).  The rescue vehicle had an attached service module, and both the lifting body and its service module were labeled NORS, which I recalled from somewhere stood for National Orbital Rescue Service.

Martin developed the “SV-5” lifting body shape (ref. 2),  which the U.S. Air Force flight-tested as the X-24A in the early 1970s (ref. 3).  NASA applied the concept to its X-38 Crew Return Vehicle, evaluated as an attached rescue vehicle for International Space Station astronauts before it was cancelled in 2002 (ref. 4).  There are other shapes for lifting bodies, such as the Dreamchaser spacecraft now in development by Sierra Nevada Corporation (ref. 5).

Figure 1. Astronaut from a SV-5 lifting body rescue vehicle coming to the aid of an Apollo spacecraft in low earth orbit. Credit: Martin Marietta Corp., 1965.

Figure 2. Astronaut from a SV-5 lifting body rescue vehicle coming to the aid of an Apollo spacecraft in low earth orbit. Credit: Columbia Pictures, 1969.
Compare that image to the color photo (figure 2) that is a press release from Columbia Pictures for the movie, Marooned, released in December 1969 (ref. 6).  It shows the climactic scene from the movie. The similarity is striking, but maybe not a coincidence. Martin Caidin, the author of both the 1964 novel Marooned—in which a stranded Mercury astronaut is rescued by his best friend flying the new Gemini spacecraft—and the 1969 up-dated novel-of-the-movie and also a technical consultant for the movie, certainly read Aviation Week and would have seen that Martin Marietta concept artwork. Caidin may have been struck by the familiar space-rescue theme, and recalled it when he revised his novel for a movie. Maybe this is a peek behind the movie-magic curtain.

On closer inspection, the Martin Marietta concept’s service module appears to be a Gemini capsule and adapter section, which in 1965 was the new spacecraft built by another company, McDonnell. It seems to have Gemini-style windows and open right-side crew hatch as well as its general shape. It is impossible to tell from the picture, but perhaps Martin imagined that the nose section of the Gemini containing the parachutes and the re-entry maneuvering thrusters could be eliminated entirely and the remainder of the spacecraft bolted directly to the lifting body, to be disposed of before re-entry. It is unusual to see a company explicitly subsume another company’s product, but Martin provided the Titan boosters for the Gemini capsules and the company’s artist may have felt comfortable enough with it to use Gemini in the supporting role.

Martin Caidin (1927-1997) was an American author and authority on aviation and astronautics and an accomplished pilot (ref. 7).  He described his involvement with the Mercury and Gemini programs as “a government consultant, newsman and broadcaster” (ref. 8).  I didn’t read much of his aviation work in my youth, but I have vintage hardcover editions of his spaceflight novels Marooned (1964), No Man’s World (1967), Four Came Back (1968), Marooned (updated for the movie, 1969) and The Cape (1971) (ref. 9).  As an adolescent space geek at a time before the Internet provided abundant space information, I read Caidin’s books as contemporary technical fact with a heavy overlay of human drama. Today I can re-read them to recapture the zeitgeist of outer space as Cold War battleground, its single-combat victor not yet determined.

In his later years, Caidin claimed the power of telekinesis although he declined invitations from well-known debunker James Randi to be tested in controlled circumstances (ref. 10).  The non-telekinetic aspects of his lifestyle were manifested in his writing style—sort of Dashiell Hammett for the Space Age. Marooned (ref. 11),  in particular, appealed to me because of its high technical accuracy and gritty realism in describing the Mercury and Gemini programs: the 1964 novel has eleven appendices listing the technical data, calculations, etc., substantiating the action in the novel. Caidin liked to say that Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra found only one technical error in the book but never divulged what it was, so he could always stay one step ahead of the author. Schirra was a prankster and it would have been typical of him to tell Caidin something like that just to keep him guessing.

Caidin’s technical accuracy and ability to put his characters in real-world dramatic situations had a direct influence on actual space progress on at least two occasions. Deke Slayton gave Caidin’s movie treatment some of the credit for helping to thaw the Cold War enough for his own overdue flight to dock with the Soviets(ref. 12):
Oddly enough, one of the things that moved the joint flight closer to reality was a fictional movie called Marooned, based on a novel by Martin Caidin. In the original version, published in 1964, a Mercury-Atlas 10 astronaut is rescued by a Soviet cosmonaut. The movie had been updated (and Caidin wrote a new novel version as well) showing how a Skylab crew might be saved by a Soviet Soyuz pilot. 
The movie never made much money in the United States, but it apparently impressed the Soviets that Americans were ready to consider international flights—especially to demonstrate the concept of space rescue.
The original version Slayton mentioned also had an influence on reality, even more directly than its eventual movie successor, which really only encouraged an international technical project that was already in progress. When the novel was published in mid-1964 (ref. 13),  NASA was preparing to send two-man astronaut teams into orbit aboard the new Gemini spacecraft. By mid-December, just a few months before the first manned Gemini flight, NASA managers directed that mission procedures be modified to avoid the Marooned scenario if the retrorockets failed.

In January 1965 (ref. 14),
…NASA Headquarters sent Flight Operations in Houston a set of preliminary data, with orders to revise the flight plan to protect the Gemini 3 crew against the […] the failure of spacecraft retrorockets to work, stranding the crew in space. Headquarters proposed three OAMS [Orbital Attitude and Maneuvering System] maneuvers to place the spacecraft in a "fail safe" orbit, one from which it would reenter whether the retrorockets fired or not. Actually, Gemini orbits were too low to be permanent, so spacecraft reentry was inevitable. What the fail-safe maneuvers were designed to achieve was the spacecraft's return promptly enough to ensure that the crew survived. [That is, before their oxygen ran out.] Coming as it did less than three months before the planned launch, the new demand threw mission planning into turmoil. But the response was rapid. A revised tentative flight plan was ready in little more than a month, and the final plan followed on 4 March.
NASA planners were capitalizing on the fact that Gemini was the first spacecraft equipped to translate, that is, to maneuver by speeding up and slowing down to change the shape of its orbit around the earth, using its OAMS.  (Of course, every spacecraft the braked out of orbit and landed on Earth was “translating” but that was an irreversible maneuver to lower its orbital altitude to intersect with the atmosphere.)

The conservative, Marooned-inspired belt-and-braces approach was used again on Gemini 4, but then discarded after experience demonstrated that retrorockets were as reliable as the engineers had always said they were. In fact, there were never any failures among the six dozen solid-fuel retrorockets used in sets of three on Mercury spacecraft and in sets of four on Gemini.

Nor were there any failures among the six Apollo spacecraft that flew Earth-orbit missions and used their large, aft-mounted liquid-fueled engines to deorbit; if there had been, they all could have used their side-mounted maneuvering engines to do so. This was the scenario in the movie, but was glossed over lightly to provide the dramatic impetus for the rescue scenario.

In fact, the more likely failure was to orient correctly during the retro maneuver. In 1960, the first test version of the Soviet Union’s Vostok spacecraft accidentally raised its orbit by nearly 250 miles (400 km) because it was oriented nose-forward instead of nose-backward when its single-use liquid-fueled braking engine was fired (ref. 15).  Its two components, the landing capsule and the service module, continued orbiting until 1962 and 1965, respectively. In 1962, the second manned Mercury orbital spaceflight landed 250 nautical miles (460 km) beyond its target due to a combination of misalignment, delayed initiation and underthrust (ref. 16).

Caidin was directly involved in one more non-telekinetic crossover between fiction and reality. In the movie of Marooned, he appeared in a cameo as a radio reporter describing the arrival of the lifting body at Cape Canaveral for its launch on the rescue mission. The fictional news event he was describing on film was the movie manifestation of the 1965 artwork that may have inspired his update of Marooned, which then positioned that movie to influence the course of the first joint American-Russian space mission a decade later.

  1. Photograph caption, Aviation Week, Oct. 18, 1965, p. 69.
  2. Reed, R. Dale, with Darlene Lister, Wingless Flight, The Lifting Body Story, NASA SP-4220, NASA, Washington, D.C., 1997.
  3. “Martin-Marietta X-24A”, (accessed Dec. 13, 2014).
  4. “NASA X-38”, (accessed Dec. 13, 2014).
  5. Described in “Commercial Crew Development”, (accessed Dec. 13, 2014).
  6. “Marooned (1969)”, (accessed Dec. 12, 2014).
  7. “Martin Caidin”, (accessed Sep. 27, 2014).
  8. Caidin, Martin, Marooned, E.P. Dutton and Co., New York, 1964, acknowledgments, p. 359.
  9. “Martin Caidin summary biography”, Internet Speculative Fiction Database, (accessed Oct. 2, 2014).
  10. “Martin Caidin”, (accessed Sep. 27, 2014).
  11. “Marooned (novel)”, (accessed Dec. 15, 2014).
  12. Slayton, Deke, with Cassutt, Michael, Deke, Forge Books, New York, 1994, p. 277.
  13. I don’t know the date when the novel was first published, but it must have been about mid-year because it was reviewed in the October 1964 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction according to “Martin Caidin summary biography”, Internet Speculative Fiction Database, (accessed Oct. 2, 2014).
  14. Hacker, Barton C., and Grimwood, James M., On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini, NASA Special Publication 4203, Washington, D.C., 1977, pp. 228-9. See note 32, memo, Hall to Schneider, "Interim Status Report on Decay Safe Orbits," 11 Dec. 1964.
  15. “Korabl-Sputnik 1”, (accessed Dec. 10, 2014).
  16. Results of the Second United States Manned Orbital Space Flight May 24, 1962, NASA SP-6, NASA, Washington, D.C., 1962, (accessed Dec. 22, 2014).