A Peek Inside The Orion Spacecraft That Will Fly Us To Mars

It doesn't yet have the sleek design of SpaceX's Crew Dragon, but it's still pretty epic

The length of humanity's planned journey to Mars will be much more than the 6 months or so that it'll take to fly there. Though NASA plans to send astronauts to the red planet sometime in the 2030s or 40s, it's going to take decades of research and testing to develop the equipment to get us there.

The ship that will carry humans to another planet is the Orion capsule, of which NASA is already testing prototypes. And at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Popular Science got to take a look inside an Orion mock-up. Click through the pictures in the gallery above.

Disclosure: This trip was paid for by Twentieth Century Fox, the company that made The Martian, which comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray on January 12.

If the spacecraft looks a little cramped for a 6- to 9-month trip, that's because the capsule won't be going to Mars alone. The plan is to launch Orion from Earth and, once in space, have it dock with a larger habitat module (whose design is still TBD) before beginning its journey to Mars.

"This is like a big stretch limo compared to that Soyuz capsule.”

Plus, Orion engineer Stuart McClung says the spacecraft is not all that small compared to what we use to send astronauts to the International Space Station. “If you walk over to the Soyuz capsule on the other side of the building, this is like a big stretch limo compared to that Soyuz capsule.”

The engineers at the Johnson Space Center use the Orion mock-up for designing, training, and testing--for example, deciding on a seat layout and crew interfaces.

“The inside layout [of the mock-up] is very accurate to what the vehicle design looks like,” says McClung. “It's probably 90 percent accurate. The layout is right. It doesn't have all the cushions and all the devices in there."

Unlike today's spacecraft, which are designed to go to the International Space Station and back, Orion will be outfitted for long-term space travel. Mars-bound crews “have to be much more autonomous, and the vehicle's got to allow them to be autonomous,” McClung says.

Finding a lightweight material that can shield astronauts from space radiation is another big challenge, which McClung says they haven't quite solved yet. The trick is to add protection without adding too much mass or volume. One solution may be to wrap the capsule in a soft layer, similar to Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable habitats, that absorbs radiation instead of scattering it the way metal does. The computers and avionics equipment will also need to be hardened against the constant bombardment of radiation in space.

Orion has already flown to space and back in a test flight last December. Those were unmanned tests, designed to test the design and see how the spacecraft components performed under conditions of high temperatures and radiation. Since then, McClung says, the engineering team has implemented a few subtle changes to reduce weight, make the capsule easier to manufacture, and add a bit more thermal protection.

Crewed test flights won't begin until 2021 at the earliest, and those test flights will depend on NASA's development of the Space Launch System--a heavy-lift system that's running behind schedule.

“There's a lot of stuff that has to happen” before NASA can launch to Mars in the 2030s, says McClung. Still, he's not daunted. “I'll tell you that my capsule will be ready.”

A mock-up of the Orion capsule

NASA is developing this 16-foot spacecraft to carry humans to Mars. In space, it will dock with a larger module to provide living space for the 6- to 9-month journey.Sarah Fecht/Popular Science

Inside an Orion mock-up

It doesn't have all the shiny design elements, but this prototype contains the basic layout of the Orion spacecraft.Sarah Fecht/Popular Science

Inside an Orion mock-up

The seats are positioned against the floor of the capsule, which helps them (and the astronauts who'll sit in them) withstand the more than 8 million pounds of thrust of the heavy duty rocket that NASA's developing. Once finished, the Space Launch Vehicle will be the most powerful rocket ever made.Sarah Fecht/Popular Science

Another view of the Orion mock-up

Sarah Fecht/Popular Science