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Orion Spaceplane

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. 

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 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.)

Click on the images to see a larger version.

Fans line up to tour the interior of the Orion Space Plane.
The Orion’s main rockets fire, speeding it to orbital velocity.


The last flying Orion Space Plane orbits the Earth.


The Orion Spaceplane strikes a classic pose.


A Pan Am promotional poster from 1970.


After Pan Am went out of business the Orion Spaceplane was aquired by United Airlines.


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