Spacecraft Model Points the Way to the Moon

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The United States is preparing for another trip to the moon. But getting back there will require a new spacecraft: Orion. For the moment, all NASA has is a plywood-model of the spacecraft-to-be.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott. Today in Science Out of the Box, we visit a real box. Well, sort of. It's a life-size model of Orion, NASA's newest space ship. The mockup is a vision of the future made out of plywood, foam board, Velcro and tape.

NPR's Nell Boyce recently got a tour.

NELL BOYCE: Johnson Space Center in Houston is a sprawling place. It's so big that each building gets a number. Building 9 is like an aircraft hangar. Inside are full-scale exact replicas of NASA spacecraft.

Mr. SKIP HATFIELD (NASA): This is our mockup of training facility. The astronauts are trained out here for station and shuttle missions.

BOYCE: Skip Hatfield takes me past huge gleaming models of the shuttle and the space station. We're headed to a model of the ship his office is working on, Orion. It's a bell-shaped capsule that NASA wants to send to the moon by 2020.

Mr. HATFIELD: Right now, we're standing in front of a mockup that we used for developing the interior of the capsule. And it's primarily to physically lay out how the vehicle's going to look.

BOYCE: The capsule is small, about 15 feet wide and six feet tall. The outside looks realistic, but it's just white sheet metal and plywood that's been painted black.

Inside, it's stark white and almost empty with some seats and display panels made out of foam board. There are also storage lockers, but these are just sheets of paper taped to the walls. One is marked Crew Member Personal Items. Another is labeled Wet And Dry Wipes.

Astronaut Scott Altman has been helping to design Orion. He says this model reminds him of the old days when he was a kid reading comic books.

Mr. SCOTT ALTMAN (Astronaut): And you could order a submarine or something on the back page of the comic book for your own house. It would come made out of cardboard and you could build it in your living room and it'd be pretty close to what we have right here.

BOYCE: Still, Altman says a model like this one can sometimes can be more useful than fancy computer simulations or other high tech design tools. To see what he means, we climb in through the hatch.

Mr. ALTMAN: So my first question is, where do you want to sit?

BOYCE: Alright, well, I want to be the pilot.

Mr. ALTMAN: Okay. You can go over to seat number five.

BOYCE: We're on our backs with our legs sticking in the air.

Mr. ALTMAN: You can see we have displays in front of us.

BOYCE: The boxy display panel is Velcro-ed to the ceiling, but it's kind of falling down. Altman props it up. Two plastic sheets mimic computer screens. They show photos of a potential landing site in Australia.

Mr. ALTMAN: Well, one of the things we did is we looked at display sizing. So if I'm sitting in a seat like this, clearly I can see this display pretty well and that one, but looking over there is a little bit harder. And it's hard to get that feel in just a virtual world, so we come over here and evaluate that.

BOYCE: Behind us are two windows. There's no glass, just foam board frames. Each has a different shape.

Mr. ALTMAN: We're evaluating different window concepts, what's big enough.

BOYCE: So which one do you like better?

Mr. ALTMAN: Well, bigger windows are always better. That's kind of what I know so far.

BOYCE: NASA wants Orion to carry four to six astronauts. But this capsule feels cramped and we're not even wearing bulky space suits. Altman says they've had drills in here to see how hard it is move around.

Mr. ALTMAN: If there was an emergency, we have a requirement that says you can get out within two minutes. So we put on all our suits and strapped in like we were on the pad and then they hit the stop watch and we all started trying to get out.

BOYCE: He says they made it out in time.

On the metal staircase outside of the mockup, we run into Tim Reynolds, the guy who's in charge of building these models.

Mr. TIM REYNOLDS (NASA): This is spaceship 101, when you're actually starting from square one of, you know, where are we going to put the stowage, where are we going to put the seats, how are we going to get these guys in and out, where are we going to put the windows and the consoles.

Yeah, it's very exciting stuff. And it keeps us busy because they want to change it every month.

BOYCE: There's still time to make a lot of changes. Orion isn't scheduled for test flights until 2014. Soon after that, an astronaut who has sat in this plywood mockup could be in the real space capsule headed for the moon.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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