TIME Magazine default image

NASA's Hot New Ride for 2014

Jan 28, 2014

It's hard to know when to take NASA seriously anymore. In the past, if the big brains at the space agency said we were going to the moon, well, pack your bags, because we're shipping out. These days? Not so much. As TIME has noted, one of the best ways to tell if any planned mission described in any NASA press release has a chance of actually flying is to use the Count the Conditionals Rule. The greater the number of references to what a spacecraft could achieve or when it should be flying, the less chance it's going anywhere at all.

For years now, the manned space program has been drowning in conditionals. We were building spacecraft that could take humans to Mars—then we weren't; we were committing ourselves to a new program that would have us back on the moon by 2015—and then we broke the commitment. But slowly, the manned program appears to be getting back on track. Real hardware is being built again, real firing tests are being conducted, and a first test launch of a new deep-space vehicle is scheduled for September. If (and that's a planet-sized if), funding stays in place, White House policy doesn't change and general fecklessness doesn't prevail, the U.S. could at last be finding its way back to its once-dominant role in space.

NASA is making its current push with two new machines: a crew vehicle dubbed Orion and a rocket that is better known better by its acronym—SLS—than by it's decidedly prosaic name, which is Space Launch System. But anything the machines lack in marketing sizzle they make up in engineering ambition. (Continued below gallery)

PHOTOS: A Look at America's Next Space Machines

The 16.5 foot diameter, titanium structure-supported heat shield fabricated by Lockheed Martin in Denver for Orion. Textron Defense Systems, outside Boston, covered the shield’s outer surface with Avcoat™, an ablative material system used on the Apollo spacecraft. The shield will have to withstand temperatures of 4,000 degrees F (2,200 C).
The 16.5 foot diameter, titanium structure-supported heat shield fabricated by Lockheed Martin in Denver for Orion. Textron Defense Systems, outside Boston, covered the shield’s outer surface with Avcoat™, an ablative material system used on the Apollo spacecraft. The shield will have to withstand temperatures of 4,000 degrees F (2,200 C).Patrick H. Corkery—Lockheed Martin
The 16.5 foot diameter, titanium structure-supported heat shield fabricated by Lockheed Martin in Denver for Orion. Textron Defense Systems, outside Boston, covered the shield’s outer surface with Avcoat™, an ablative material system used on the Apollo spacecraft. The shield will have to withstand temperatures of 4,000 degrees F (2,200 C).
A test model of the Orion spacecraft with its parachutes was dropped high above the the Arizona desert on Feb. 29, 2012. This particular drop test—the latest of a series—studied the stability of the wake left by the Orion as it descended.
The NASA team at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans has completed the final weld on the first space-bound Orion capsule, on June 22, 2012. The crew compartment is within this structure, which is then enclosed in the conical exterior.
A test version of Orion arrived at the Kennedy Space Center on April 21, 2012. This model will be used for ground operations practice in advance of the first test flight.
At NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana, the first space-bound Orion capsule is packed up for shipment to the Kennedy Space Center for final processing and outfitting.
The vast expanse of High Bay 3 in the Vehicle Assembly Building dwarfs the Orion capsule and clean room, on May 24, 2012. The clean room is designed to keep particles inside the VAB from collecting on the outside of the spacecraft during processing.
A model of Orion floats above an underwater mockup of the International Space Station in the 40-foot (12 m) deep Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston on April 25, 2013. The model is used to practice splashdown operations for Orion's first flight test in 2014. The yellow balls on the top of the capsule are flotation balloons which would flip the vehicle into the proper orientation if it were to turn upside down after landing.
This Orion boilerplate—essentially a dead weight mock-up—is loaded on a flatbed trailer for shipment to San Diego, where it is used to rehearse water recovery in the run-up to the 2014 test launch.
A RS-25D engine built for the shuttle program will instead be used to power the SLS booster.
Four RS-25 engines—here undergoing undergoing a hot-fire test—will power the core stage of the SLS.
A version of the J-2X engine burns brightly during a 278-sec. hot fire test Nov. 27, 2012 at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The J-2X will power the upper stage of of the SLS.
NASA engineers and contractors testing of a 67.5-in. (171 cm) model of the SLS in a subsonic wind tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
The launch-abort rockets and an Orion mock-up are prepared on the pad for their test flight at the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, on April 8, 2010.
Ground teams in White Sands, New Mexico, practice stacking test versions of Orion and its launch abort rockets, on Sept. 24, 2009.
An artist's conception of the 38-story SLS with the orion on top, inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral.
The 16.5 foot diameter, titanium structure-supported heat shield fabricated by Lockheed Martin in Denver for Orion. Text
... VIEW MORE

Patrick H. Corkery—Lockheed Martin
1 of 15

Orion's design DNA runs straight back to the old Apollo spacecraft—which is a very good bloodline. Like the Apollos, it's a two-part ship, with a conical command module that houses the astronauts, and a cylindrical service module for batteries, oxygen, fuel cells, engine and more. The Apollos' 210 cu. ft. (5.9 cu. m) habitable space accommodated three astronauts. Orion's 316 cu. ft (8.9 cu. m) is designed for four. The crews will need that extra elbow room. The longest Apollo lunar mission, Apollo 17, lasted just 12 days, 13 hrs. In its current configuration, the Orion is intended for missions ranging from 21 to 210 days.

The SLS is similarly descended from earlier NASA hardware—both the shuttle and the Saturn V moon rocket. Its main stage engines are upgraded shuttle engines, and it carries strap-on solid boosters also based on the shuttle's. The new rocket's upper stage engines are based on the design of the old J-2 that powered the second and third stages of the Saturn. The SLS also gets its looks from the Saturn—a NASA nod to the public relations value of the new rocket conjuring up images of the biggest and best one the space agency ever built.

While the Orion comes in just one size, there will actually be two models of the SLS: one capable of lifting 70 metric tons (154,000 lbs, or 70,ooo kg) to low Earth orbit; and another than can loft 130 metric tons (286,000 lbs., or 130,000 kg). The smaller version will stand 321 ft. (98 m), just shy of the Saturn V's 363 ft. (111 m). The bigger one will exceed its grandaddy's stature, measuring 384 ft (117 m).

That, of course, is assuming any of this machinery ever sees a launch pad. At the moment, the outlook is best for Orion, which at least knows what it feels like to fly—a little. In 2010, the launch escape system—the small cluster of rockets that would lift the command module up and away from the SLS booster if a Challenger-type problem occurred during the early part of flight—was tested in White Sands, N.M. The motors took an Orion mock-up 6,000 ft. (1,828 m) high before a parachute descent.

(MORE: Chinese Social Media Prays for 'Little Bunny' Moon Rover)

This coming September, the Orion and a partially completed service module will fly in space for the first time atop a Delta heavy-lift rocket, setting out on a two-orbit flight around the Earth, 3,600 mi. (5,800 km) above the surface, or 15 times higher than the International Space Station. The purpose will be to test both the spacecraft and its heat shield as they re-enter the atmosphere at return-from-deep-space speeds of 20,000 mph (32,000 k/h) generating temperatures of 4,000º F (2,200º C). It ain't a manned trip to the moon, but it's a start.

The SLS has a lot further to go. Engines have been fired, some basic shrouds and housings have been built, wind tunnel tests have taken place, but the pace has been slow—far slower than things went for the Saturn V in the turbocharged early years of the space race. The first flight of the rocket with an Orion spacecraft mated to it is not planned until 2017; the first crewed flight won't happen until 2021 at the earliest. But no one pretends those dates can't change. The recent budget deal Congress struck kept the program's money spigot open and relieved worries for now that one more NASA program would fall victim to politics—something that has happened many times before. It was John Kennedy who launched the original moon program, Richard Nixon who killed it, George W. Bush who revived it and Barack Obama who killed it again. NASA directors are well aware of that body count.

At the moment, with the moon off the table, the missions the space agency is planning for the SLS and Orion are equal parts laughable and vague. First, we'll fly out to an asteroid, capture it in a gigantic bag, tow it to the vicinity of the moon and then...you know...visit it. Really. Next we'll go to Mars, a trip that NASA says will happen in 2030-something-something-but-really-before-2040. We'll see.

In the mean time, if nothing else, the designers, engineers, chemists, metalworkers, builders, riveters, haulers and others who actually imagine and create the magnificent machines that have taken us far beyond Earth before and could once again, continue to do the only thing they can—which is keep to at it. The money, the will and the governmental vision may run out before they're done, but for the moment at least, the work goes on.

(MORE: Old Mars Rover Finds New Signs of Life)

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.