What looks like NASA’s Orion capsule, costs about the same

as an Orion capsule but isn’t made of metal? Why that would be NASA’s Composite

Crew Module, a structural prototype commissioned by NASA to determine if there

would be any advantages to using new polymers to fabricate its planned

replacement for the retiring space shuttles. 

The NASA Engineering and Safety Center, set up in the wake

of the Columbia accident to provide independent testing, analysis and

assessments of the agency’s high-risk programs, has been studying the

alternative Orion capsule for about three years. 

The NESC found that an alternative Orion was feasible but a

detailed design would be needed to ascertain if it could meet mass requirements

and manufacturing concerns. NASA told it to go ahead and build one. 

Here’s a quick synopsis of the project from NSEC’s website:

The team …  focused on a design that utilizes

aluminum honeycomb sandwich and solid polymer matrix laminate material systems.

The design integrates the capsule backbone with the floor and pressure shell

walls, which helps share the structural loads — particularly important for

water landings. The design also trims the capsule by about 150 pounds. The

capsule is constructed in two major sections: an upper and a lower pressure


Manufacturing of the prototype began last October and was

finished in July. Testing is under way.

Preliminary results are not particularly promising, as any

cost savings in weight and manufacturing are eroded by the alternative Orion’s

more complex design. Engineers also determined that the composite capsule would

take longer to build due to manufacturing changes associated with switching

from metallic materials . 

NASA did like the composite’s clam-shell design and is

considering using it for the operational vehicles.  NESC also concludes

that using composites reduces the number of parts needed to manufacture and

maintain the vehicles, which cuts life-cycle costs. 

“Throughout the manufacturing phase, a number of

‘unknown unknowns’ materialized, giving the team the opportunity to evaluate

and demonstrate the inspectability and repairability of the (composite)

design,” NESC said.

(Alternative Orion capsule, ready for pressure tests.

Credit: NASA)