In 1959, when Nasa’s original seven astronauts first saw their tiny single-man Mercury space capsule, they weren’t impressed. It appeared to have no windows and few controls – the elite test pilots complained that they would be little more than ‘spam in a can’.
This conflict between the astronauts’ desire to fly a spaceship and the engineers’ wish to simply get a man into orbit (and back alive) are illustrated in the movie The Right Stuff. With our silver-suited hero John Glenn threatening to share his views with the waiting press, who are clamouring at the hangar door, the engineers concede portholes and proper instrumentation.
Almost 60 years on, a similar scenario is playing out in Houston – albeit in slow motion. Right now, astronauts are negotiating with engineers over the final interior design and controls for Nasa’s new four-person Orion spacecraft. First flown without a crew in 2014, it’s due for launch with astronauts on board within the next five years.
Today, the John Glenn role is taken by a former submarine commander and veteran of three Space Shuttle missions, Steve Bowen. I ask him for his first impression of Orion. “It’s really cramped,” he tells me. “It’s really tight for four people. The two people at the back will be looking at the seat pans of the pilot and commander above them.”
Superficially, Orion looks much like the Apollo spacecraft that carried a crew of three astronauts to the Moon. Conical in shape, with a heatshield protecting the lower circular surface, the new spacecraft is a good deal larger but – because it still has to fit at the top of a rocket – not that much larger. And whereas Apollo missions only lasted a few days, with a stroll on the Moon to break up the journey, missions in Orion are planned for a minimum of three weeks and there’s no getting off.