With yesterday’s confirmation of the passage of the critical Key Decision Point (KDP)-C, NASA has taken a significant step within its Orion Program, which will lead to the uncrewed Exploration Mission (EM)-1, no sooner than November 2018—aboard the maiden voyage of the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) booster—and the piloted EM-2, whose previous No Earlier Than (NET) target of August 2021 has now received an omimous “No Later Than” date of April 2023, in acknowledgement of future budgetary uncertainties. However, with the completion of KDP-C, it was noted that the decision point effectively commits NASA “to a development cost baseline of $6.77 billion” from the beginning of Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 through the completion of the EM-2 flight. “The commitment is consistent with funding levels in the President’s budget request,” the space agency stressed. “Conservative cost and schedule commitments outlined in the KDP-C align the Orion Program with program management best practices that account for potential technical risks and budgetary uncertainty beyond the program’s control.”
As outlined in AmericaSpace’s series of Orion history articles, published last year, the program to develop a new piloted spacecraft to deliver humans Beyond Low-Earth Orbit (BLEO) and eventually outward to Mars has undergone a tortured development process, ever since its conception—during the first administration of President George W. Bush—back in January 2004. Originally known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), it was renamed “Orion” in August 2006, but both it and its umbrella “Constellation Program” met with stiff resistance and political opposition and were terminated early in President Barack Obama’s first administration in April 2010. However, development of Orion continued and in May 2011 it was “reborn” as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Six months later, the Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 mission was baselined as a means of demonstrating the spacecraft’s capacity to endure the high radiation environment of the Lower Van Allen Belts and survive a peak re-entry velocity of more than 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h). It was recognized that these blistering speeds, which are far higher than the 17,500 mph (28,800 km/h) experienced during shuttle and Soyuz re-entries, are markedly closer to the velocities that Orion will encounter during a return from lunar distance.
Lofted atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on 5 December 2014, the EFT-1 mission proved a huge success, delivering an Orion spacecraft to a peak apogee of 3,609 miles (5,808 km), some 15 times higher than the orbit of the International Space Station (ISS), and gave it the farthest vantage point from the Home Planet of a human-capable vehicle since the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission in December 1972. Following a smooth oceanic splashdown and initial transfer to the U.S. Naval Base San Diego, Calif., the EFT-1 spacecraft returned to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) shortly before Christmas and ushering in a protracted period of disassembly and inspection, prior to its future use in the Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) test, currently scheduled to occur from the Cape’s Space Launch Complex (SLC)-46 in 2018.
Of course, the EFT-1 spacecraft did not represent a “full-up” Orion spacecraft—equipped as it was with a single-string navigation system, a structural representation of the cylindrical Service Module (SM) attached to its conical Crew Module (CM), a partial Launch Abort System (LAS), and internal batteries, rather than photovoltaic arrays, for electrical power provision—but the post-flight analysis led to a number of significant changes, prior to EM-1. One such change, effected earlier this year, was the decision to implement six “compression pads,” made from an innovative 3-D woven material of quartz fibers, which will be integrated into Orion’s Thermal Protection System (TPS) at the CM/SM interface, alongside the spacecraft’s primary Avcoat ablator.
This work was accompanied by extensive core sampling and laser scanning of EFT-1’s heat shield in the opening months of 2015. In March, the 5,000-pound (2,270-kg) heat shield was delivered to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Ala., where it was milled and Avcoat sample “squares” were removed from its ablated surface for detailed analysis. Then, in early June, the heat shield was delivered to the Langley Research Center (LaRC) in Hampton, Va., for water impact testing in early 2016 in the Hydro Impact Basin. This is expected to result in full water-landing certification for Orion, prior to the AA-2 test of the Launch Abort System (LAS) in 2018. The latter will see the spacecraft, mounted atop a converted Peacekeeper missile and outfitted with a fully functional LAS, whose trio of solid-fueled motors—abort motor, attitude-control motor, and jettison motor—will demonstrate the capability to pull Orion away from a failed launch vehicle in flight.
Each of these incremental steps have positioned the Orion Program confidently at the KDP-C level, described as “the first time NASA has reached this level of progress for a spacecraft designed to take humans into deep space beyond the Moon, including to an asteroid placed in lunar orbit and on the journey to Mars.” It was stressed that performance data from EFT-1 had assisted with the improvement of manufacturing processes, as the first pair of welds for EM-1 CM were made at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, La., earlier this month. And in August, the program entered its multi-month-long Critical Design Review (CDR) phase, described as “a rallying point for those with technical stakes in building and flying future Orion missions to ensure all elements are in sync, before moving ahead with full-scale fabrication, assembly, integration and testing.” In parallel, the SLS booster program completed its own CDR in July 2015, positioning it favorably for its maiden voyage with EM-1 in November 2018.
“Every day, teams around the country are moving at full speed to get ready for EM-1, when we’ll flight-test Orion and SLS together in the proving ground of space, far away from the safety of Earth,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development at the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. “We’re progressing toward eventually sending astronauts deep into space.” Speaking more recently, after the KDP-C decision, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden added that the effort to send humans into the Solar System was “progressing.” The four-time shuttle astronaut and retired U.S. Marine Corps General pointed out that “Orion is a key piece of the flexible architecture that will enable humanity to set foot on the Red Planet and we are committed to building the spacecraft and other elements necessary to make this a reality.”
Current plans for Orion’s future in terms of actually transporting humans to BLEO destinations remain very much in flux, with the EM-1 voyage and the maiden flight of the SLS not expected until November 2018. This mission will carry an Orion CM—attached to a European Space Agency (ESA)-built SM—on an unpiloted circumlunar flight, although the crewed EM-2 remains unclear. It is currently described as forming part of the Obama Administration’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which calls for a pair of U.S. astronauts to rendezvous with and explore a captured asteroid in lunar orbit. However, with considerable criticism having been expressed over the merits of such a venture (as well as an overwhelming “Moon-First” stance of many of NASA’s International Partners), and with a new president due to occupy the White House from January 2017, the future for ARM remains questionable.
Clearly, political machinations and funding issues represent a clear driver for many of the Orion Program’s woes. Yesterday’s announcement of KDP-C was tempered by the inclusion of April 2023 as a “No Later Than” date for the launch of the SLS-boosted EM-2 mission, which will represent a potential 20-month delay for the first piloted voyage of a spacecraft originally proposed almost two decades earlier. Previously targeted for August 2021, EM-2—crewed by two astronauts, on the United States’ first piloted BLEO mission since Apollo 17—is described by NASA as having to potentially move to the right in response to “conservative cost and schedule commitments” that may be “beyond the Program’s control.” Certainly, the ongoing CDR process is expected to include an evaluation of the common aspects of the EM-1 and EM-2 spacecraft, including structures, pyrotechnics, LAS capability, guidance, navigation and control, and software. That said, specific EM-2 systems issues will be addressed at a subsequent CDR in the fall of 2017.
“As we take these steps to develop the capabilities we need to send astronauts deep into space, we’re also aligning how we manage our human exploration systems development programs to ensure we are prepared for unforeseen future hurdles,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “We’re committed to this funding and readiness level to stay on the journey we’ve outlined to get to Mars.” His words were echoed by Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier, who pointed out that the agency “will keep working toward an earlier readiness date for a first crewed flight, but will be ready no later than April 2023 and we will keep the spacecraft, rocket and ground systems moving at their own best possible paces.”
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