The designers of the Orion Space Plane created a beautiful ship that not only foreshadowed the arrival of NASA’s Space Shuttle, but did it with much more style and grace. Built under wraps in England at the Rolls Royce engine plant in Leavesden, the Orion was completed on August 10th 1967. It proved to be easy to get into space, but had serious heat and vibration problems when re-entering the atmosphere. (Later engineering analysis revealed that the wing control surfaces weren’t sufficiently large enough to completely stabilize the craft, and the retro-jets on the tail exhaust, although sound in concept, proved that a vertical stabilizer was sorely needed.)
For the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” director Stanley Kubrick (famously averse to flying) had a second-unit crew, led by assistant cinematographer John Alcott, shoot exterior scenes of the Orion in space in the last weeks of October 1967; the live-action segments that took place in the weightless interior followed immediately thereafter. The actors aboard could only perform for short periods in the weightless environment of space before getting violently sick. Kubrick directed the actors and Alcott via a closed-circuit TV link furnished by Bell Telephone.
Because of the motion sick actors, shooting the interior scenes went over schedule by over a week and the production had to double the size of the clean-up crew on the ground. The Orion was then stored in a hanger at London Heathrow Airport in case re-shoots were necessary. At the completion of the film, Pan Am took possession of the Orion, since the corporation had partially funded its construction, with MGM Studios picking up the remainder of the cost.
Pan Am used the Orion in print and television ads promoting itself as “the airline to take you into the future.” Unfortunately, what the future held for Pan Am was much more grim. The airline filed for bankruptcy early in 1991, with its final demise happening later that year.
Shortly afterwards, Delta Airlines purchased most of Pan Am’s fleet, but the “limited use” Orion Space Plane was acquired separately by San Francisco-based United Airlines. United restored and re-painted the Orion and uses it for flights into space as a “perk” for its frequent fliers. (The harrowing re-entry is seen as part of the experience, and customers have been known to complain if their ride back to earth is too smooth.)
The Sci-Fi Air Show displays the Orion for the 6 months out of the year United does not take it into space. As S.F.A.S. pilot Stephen Dailey says about the Orion, “the short wings and the position of the cockpit make it a difficult plane to land. You have to rely on your instruments a lot. I will say, though, that the roll-over before the boosters hit is a real rush that I never get tired of.”