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 ...