Test Driving the Orion Space Capsule

For the past 10 minutes, I’ve been trying to nuzzle the Orion space capsule up to the International Space Station to dock, but I keep drifting left, smack into a European lab.

Then I look slightly past the flat-panel screen that displays my incompetence with the joystick, through the window and straight up. I see the moon. It’s filling the view and grabs my attention from the docking job at hand.

The moon is what this is all about.

I’m in a full-scale mock-up of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle that’s supposed to replace the space shuttle fleet and eventually take astronauts back to the moon. The actual ship is still a few years away from being built, and it won’t fly until at least 2013.

Two weeks before my test drive, NASA awarded Lockheed Martin an $8 billion contract to build Orion, a capsule NASA refers to as “Apollo on steroids.” It’s the latest in a long line of planned next-generation spaceships for NASA, none of which has ever taken off.

Lockheed Martin built the mock-up to help understand the volume and geometry involved in the design and construction of the Orion. NASA has developed its own model, which is slightly different.

“It starts to give you an idea of the real size involved,” said Cleon Lacefield, Lockheed Martin’s vice president and the company’s Orion program manager. “It really comes up to be pretty spacious.”

Three other people are standing in the capsule and Marc Sommers, a Lockheed Martin avionics engineer, is sitting in the seat left of me, trying to get me to dock correctly.

This capsule is downright roomy. If the Apollo capsules were Volkswagen Beetles from the 1960s, cramped but useful, then Orion seems like a 1990s minivan, extended version. It’s good enough for a long road trip, which is pretty much what NASA envisions in a three-day one-way trip to the moon.

NASA Orion project manager Skip Hatfield said it was designed to be much more spacious per crew member than Apollo. Unlike Apollo, which had three astronauts, Orion will carry four astronauts to the moon, six for the much shorter hop to International Space Station.

So for the lunar trip, Orion will have about 95 cubic feet per astronaut, compared with 70 cubic feet per Apollo astronaut. Orion’s trip to the space station will be a little more crowded, with each of the six astronauts getting 63 cubic feet.

It looks even roomier because there’s no other equipment inside the Orion capsule. While most of the gear will be stored below and behind the capsule interior, stuff has a way of accumulating inside a vehicle so Orion will get to seem more crowded, Hatfield said.

There are actually two connected simulators here. One is a standard-seat model with a lot of screens and the sounds of jets. The other, which I used, offers no sounds and only one screen and a joystick a tad better than the run-of-the-mill video game. The ship doesn’t move, but it has a sense of realism because you are inside a large capsule in the prone position.

Before I get into position to simulate docking, Sommers and Hatfield tell me it’s easy. I say I’ve never flown a simulation successfully because of bad hand-eye coordination. Even an 8-year-old docked successfully when Lockheed Martin allowed families a sneak peak, Sommers said.

Once inside, I find myself in a reclining z-shape, sitting on my back with my thighs straight up, my calves horizontal and my head looking up at the screen.

Then I tried to dock. And failed. I lined up in front of the docking ring and went astray — far astray, almost leaving the space station environs. Sommers kept giving me tips and I kept moving the joystick wrong.

Maybe it’s because I can’t hear the thrusters in the simulator, Sommers offers as an excuse. That’s not it.

To my credit, I never actually crashed. After about 15 minutes of drifting away and inching back only to drift away again, I just gave up. I quit. It was humiliating and others were waiting to take this baby out for a spin — and probably laughing.

It’s just that this spaceship needs a better driver.