I like spaaace. You might have guessed this, from the way I keep saying spaaace. But I’ll stop calling it spaaace now.

I lied. Spaaace (the final frontier)

I will actually stop now. But through this post I might throw the occasional spaaace. Or ‘final frontier’. I’ll try to resist it, but hey. I’m a nerd. Spaaace is my favourite set of three dimensions. Although time is pretty nice as well. I will now stop my pre-preamble and get to the preamble.

2014 was a really big year for space. I think most people understand this to some degree, given how much publicity the Rosetta mission got. But there was another really, really big thing that happened for spaaace in 2014 – the Orion capsule was tested and green-lit for human use. And it is being advertised as the next step in taking humans to Mars.

Before I get to Orion (which I think was the real big news) I’m going to talk about Rosetta. Which was, frankly, the most ambitious space mission ever. Bigger than Apollo. Probably. I’m not going to talk about the mission itself, because unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last year you will have heard about it. But I will just say a few things about the overall stats.

Rosetta has travelled 6.4 billion kilometres, to land on the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (aka Kevin) which is travelling at 135,000 km per hour that’s only 4 km wide. That’s the equivalent of throwing a mote of dust from LA to New York and hitting a certain key on certain a keyboard. Only the mote (which is the correct term) is remote control. And that’s not even the most impressive part of it.

The Rosetta mission was launched in 2004, which means it was being built in the 1990s. And because of the stagnation of the spaaace industry after the Challenger shuttle broke up in 1986, many of Rosetta’s parts would have been designed in the 1980s. And those components would have been designed in the 1970s, with funding issued to the Americans and Russians in the 1960s and 1950s because of the Space Race – which was kicked off by the Cold War, which occurred as a result of the Second World War (1940s) and the Russian Revolution (1910s and 1920s). And that can be traced (indirectly) back to Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (which triggered the Russian Revolution and the following events) which was written back in the 1840s.

Which seems incredible to me – we made history with 40 years old technology, whose origin story can be (indirectly, sure) traced back 170 years. And don’t get me started on the steel used on Rosetta – that takes us back to the invention of fire. So if we start in the 1890s and go back to the invention of steel alloys…

Kidding. And the other thing we can thank Rosetta for is bumping Kim K’s arse off the top of Google’s search list.

And now we get to Orion – the real success of 2014 in terms of future development in space (the final frontier) and the mission to the Red Planet.

Orion is the new capsule that NASA test-launched on December 5th last year. It’s the capsule that is being advertised as the next step on the way to a human Mars landing. But there are a few misconceptions about Orion that I think are circling around, so I think I’ll explain the Orion mission. Last year I went to a lecture from the Chief Science Officer and Deputy Chief Technology Officer at NASA, talking primarily about Mars, and Orion. 😀

What they said about Orion was important – it’s not the capsule that will be sent to Mars. Here’s a graphic of the Orion spacecraft in orbit.

Now here’s a picture of Apollo in orbit around the Moon.

Aside from the souped-up solar equipment, they look basically the same. Orion only has about 9 cubic metres of living space – compared to the Apollo capsule, which has 6 cubic metres. You couldn’t live in it for more than a few weeks, let alone the whole 6 month journey to Mars. Here’s what Orion is actually for.

Since Apollo, guess how many NASA missions have been outside of Earth’s orbit? Zero. The current stock of astronauts just aren’t prepared, technically or psychologically, for deep-space missions. On the ISS if a crew member gets sick, they can be got back to Earth within a few weeks. If you’re halfway to Mars and someone gets appendicitis, you can’t just turn the ship around and take the three-month hike back to Terra firma.

So what NASA plans to do, according to these NASA folks, is build a space station – probably orbiting on the far side of the moon. What they will do then – this is crazy – is grab an asteroid. Find an asteroid that comes near the Earth, send up a manned mission to literally put a bag around the asteroid (I’m not kidding here) and tow it back to Moon orbit. This isn’t a joke – you can read about it here and here. And when the asteroid is up there, the Orion capsule will go up with a crew of 2 or 3 and do science on the asteroid. That’s the technical term.

That’s what the Orion capsule is actually for – preparing NASA for the kind of deep space missions that it will take to get to Mars. There are even plans to build a stopping point for the Mars astronauts orbiting the Moon (or even on the bagged asteroid) and have the Orion capsule take them there to be transferred onto a larger ship – the kind that you can live in for 6 months without the crew all killing each other over a meal of baked beans. I hope you catch my meaning.

But over the next few years, we’re going to have an even bigger step in the journey to Mars – the Space Launch System Blocks I and II will come into service. If you don’t know what I mean, just picture Saturn V. Then picture that bigger. Dial up the payload 110%. And put Orion on top.

Those numbers at the bottom are the payload capacities in metric tonnes. Bear in mind the Saturn V only had a payload of 118t to Low Earth Orbit. These are very big rockets. According to this, one launch of the Block II Cargo Edition could get the entire Mir station, fully crewed, into LEO. Very, very big rocket.



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