NASA’s Orion spacecraft, the agency’s spacecraft of choice for deep space human exploration, is coming together nicely inside Kennedy Space Center’s historic Operations and Checkout Building in Florida, where the vehicle is currently being processed for its first spaceflight in less than six months. Currently scheduled to launch at 8:00 a.m. EDT on Dec. 4, 2014, Orion will carry out the first flight of a human-rated spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) in nearly 40 years, and now—with the heat shied installed and Orion Command Module stacked to its Service Module—the vehicle is undergoing integrated testing before it is moved to another facility for fueling.
“This is a big deal for us, to actually stack these two elements together. We’re finishing the integrated testing of the two and then we’ll send it off for fueling before being stacked on the rocket,” said Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer. “Orion is the product of a very dedicated workforce that believes keeping America first in space exploration is critical. This flight, not just the launch in Dec. but the work that went into this design, sets us up very well for the next flights, and for eventually getting people into space again.”
The upcoming 4.5-hour unmanned flight test, dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (or EFT-1 for short), will put the entire state-of-the-art spacecraft in action to validate all of its systems and hardware operate correctly in-flight (computers, software, guidance and control, the separation events, and the heat shield). A mammoth United Launch Alliance Delta-IV Heavy rocket, America’s biggest and most powerful launcher, will leave Earth with Orion from nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex-37B to send Orion to orbit the Earth twice while remaining attached to the upper stage of the Delta-IV.
After the first orbit (two hours after liftoff) the vehicle will perform a burn to reach an altitude of more than 3,600 miles—15 times higher than the orbit of the International Space Station and 10 times higher than any human-rated spacecraft has been since 1972, when the crew of Apollo 17 visited the Moon. Orion will then detach from the Delta-IV upper stage and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at more than 20,000 mph—nearly 5,000 mph faster than the space shuttle—before parachuting gently into the Pacific Ocean off the west coast United States.
The one-of-a-kind heat shield, which was installed earlier this month, is the largest of its kind ever built and is outfitted with over 200 instrumentation sensors to provide engineers with data about the heat shield’s ability to protect Orion and its crews on NASA’s future crewed deep-space missions on the agency’s gigantic Space Launch System (SLS). Data gathered during December’s unmanned orbital Orion flight test will inform decisions about design improvements on the heat shield (and other Orion systems) and authenticate existing computer models and new approaches to space systems design and development—a process critical to reducing overall risks and costs of future Orion missions.
Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for Orion, manufactured the titanium skeleton and carbon-fiber skin that gives the heat shield its shape and will provide structural support during landing. A fiberglass-phenolic honeycomb structure on the heat shield’s carbon-fiber skin was installed before filling each of the honeycomb’s 320,000 cells with Avcoat—a specific ablative heat shield material.
The Avcoat will wear away as it heats up during Orion’s violent re-entry into the atmosphere in December, preventing heat from being transferred to the rest of the capsule and helping the spacecraft to survive its intense fall back to Earth. The heat shield material has already been subjected to arc-jet testing at both NASA’s Ames Research Center in California and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston—both before and during its manufacture. Those tests simulated the heating conditions that a returning Orion will experience, and Orion will face conditions that will bring it through the atmosphere faster than any spacecraft in the last 40 years.
All of Orion’s avionics components are now installed, and engineers have already conducted functional testing on the crew module’s 59 systems—methodically powering them up one by one. Performance testing, where all of the systems work together to operate Orion as a whole, was completed this spring prior to installation of the heat shield. The three core boosters of Orion’s mammoth ULA Delta-IV Heavy launch vehicle are in Florida now, too.
“Currently, the three common booster cores and second stage are in ULA’s Horizontal Integration Facility. The team is conducting the final horizontal processing and getting the launch vehicle ready to go to the launch pad,” said ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye.
The rocket’s upper stage, which will fire after the initial launch to send Orion farther into space than any human spacecraft has gone in four decades, arrived at the Florida launch site by barge last May, along with the spacecraft adapter and 133-foot long port booster. The two other common core boosters, each powered by a liquid-fueled RS-68 engine capable of producing over 660,000 pounds of thrust, arrived in Florida last March. Once all three boosters are processed and checked they will be moved to Space Launch Complex 37-B and hoisted vertical, which is expected to occur in late September or early October.
“The Delta IV Heavy boosters do take longer to process on the pad than a Medium, but when you realize that we are processing three boosters for the heavy compared to one booster for a medium, most are surprised that the heavy booster does not take longer than it does,” added Rye. “For this mission, we plan to put the launch vehicle on the pad about two months prior to launch. After the launch vehicle is at the pad, we do extensive launch vehicle readiness testing, then fuel the launch vehicle with liquid Hydrogen and liquid Oxygen and perform a Wet Dress Rehearsal. Shortly after Wet Dress Rehearsal, Orion will be stacked on top of the Delta IV Heavy Launch vehicle, and a few weeks later we’ll launch.”
Just a few days ago, on June 25, NASA successfully conducted their most difficult Orion parachute drop test to date, dropping an engineering test version of the spacecraft from 35,000 feet via a C-17 aircraft over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. Although there are now three remaining tests needed to demonstrate the system’s capability for Orion’s crewed deep space missions on the SLS next decade, the recent test itself was the last to be conducted to support the EFT-1 mission.
“We’ve put the parachutes through their paces in ground and airdrop testing in just about every conceivable way before we begin sending them into space on EFT-1 before the year’s done,” said Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer. “The series of tests has proven the system and will help ensure crew and mission safety for our astronauts in the future.”
AmericaSpace will, as always, be on-site at Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center to provide full coverage of the EFT-1 mission. Check back regularly for updates.
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