Breakfast in space, on an asteroid, in a tin can

The other day I picked up an interesting snippet about the likely breakfast menu on NASA’s upcoming Orion spacecraft.

Artists' impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.
Artists’ impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

Because the vehicle is weight- and volume-critical, there are going to be problems packing enough food in for the expected 28-30 day duration asteroid investigation missions. The same issue also applies to storing the – er – output that the astronauts, inevitably, are going to produce. One proposed solution is to drop any idea of having haggis served up to the skirl of a bagpipes and instead substituting something about the size of a small chocolate bar. This will drop the weight and volume at, shall we say, both ends of the human digestive cycle.

It’s kind of cool, it means they also don’t need to find a seat for the bagpiper (or train bagpipe experts as astronauts), and such things might even take off on Earth as a substitute for our usual breakfasts. It wouldn’t be the first time ‘space food’ got popular on Earth – look at Tang, for instance.

A while back I got into an online discussion with some guy who thought the whole Orion idea was foolish – too small for purpose, he argued. Better to take the proven tech of the Shuttle orbiters and use those. I suggested that the mass of the wings, tail and other gear needed to fly in an atmosphere were dead loss for deep space. In answer he revealed the very cunning part of his plan. The orbiters would be flown to orbit, then totally rebuilt in space to lose those pesky wings, tail and so forth.

Like most cunning plans it had a small flaw. The Shuttle orbiters were built as an integrated system – the most complex aircraft ever made. It wouldn’t be a matter of simply sawing off the wings and shouting ,’there, I fixed it!’ – issues include structural stress calculations (‘hey, I never knew the main wing-spar held the fuselage together…’), cable looms, hydraulics, equipment placement, centre-of-gravity issues and a whole pile of things consequent on that. Then, the wingless and tailless Shuttle would have to be tested – as I understand it, there were over 10,000 sub-systems on board the thing and it was impossible to launch it ordinarily without a few going on the fritz. Naturally anything involving a major structural rebuild would be bound to trigger faults.

Orion with propulsion and habitat module for an asteroid mission. NASA, public domain.
Orion with propulsion and habitat module for an asteroid mission. NASA, public domain.

I’m sure such a transformation could be achieved in the manufacturers’ plant, given sufficient time, money and systems-testing. It would likely be cheaper and easier to build an entirely new spacecraft, but hey…

What my online space-enthusiast friend hadn’t realised was that Orion won’t be flying to Mars by itself. For anything beyond that 28-30 day asteroid mission, it’ll be docked to a habitat module. The technology is well established. Indeed, there’s talk of using modules currently docked to the International Space Station for that purpose. Any Mars mission would also have to be equipped with a lander and enough propulsion for the there-and-back journey. That implies a LOT of fuel, multi-staged to get the mass-ratio right, and even then you come hurtling back with empty tanks – which is where Orion comes in, letting the crew aerobrake to a safe landing.

My take on an interplanetary type module-cluster. See that frustrum in the middle? That's the Earth re-entry vehicle.
My take on an interplanetary type module-cluster. See that frustrum in the middle? That’s the Earth re-entry vehicle.

Do that with a wingless Shuttle and you’d need a lot more rocket fuel – enough to brake you down to orbit on return to Earth, because you’d need to put those wings back on before you could land, including gluing about 2000 fragile heat-resistant tiles back into place, without damaging any of them and to tolerances of micro-millimetres, while wearing EVA gloves.

All of which is why Orion is the better deal for interplanetary travel than a re-engineered Shuttle. If Orion ever flies. We’ll see…

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Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017