On Dec. 5, 2014, NASA entered the Orion era minutes after dawn broke across Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The ground adjacent to Launch Complex-37B rumbled for miles and miles as an Orion capsule, meant to loft crews to deep space destinations such as the moon, cislunar space, asteroids, and Mars, was lofted to a high-apogee maiden journey atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy rocket. Spectators across Kennedy Space Center and Brevard County, as well as millions around the world watching live, were thrilled at the sight of Orion leaving Earth atop columns of orange flame and smoke on the first spaceflight of America’s “Journey to Mars.” As our Senior Writer Ben Evans wrote on the day of the launch:
“ … Just 16 days shy of the 10th anniversary of its maiden voyage, the Heavy executed perhaps the most dramatic, exciting, and far-reaching mission of its career to date, by delivering Orion—the first human-capable spacecraft for Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration in more than four decades—on its inaugural shakedown flight.”
Orion’s uncrewed maiden test flight occurred a day after a disappointing scrub, when the launch was waylaid by circumstances including high winds, sticky fill-and-drain valves, and a wayward boat. But when she soared, she soared, and while in orbit provided incredible views of the Earth from an altitude of 3,609 miles (5,808 km).
Then the real test began, as Orion would make the first high-energy reentry of a human-capable spacecraft since the reentry of Apollo 17 in December 1972. Orion reached entry interface screaming into the Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 mph (32,000 km/hr), and the spacecraft endured ultra-high temperatures up to 2,200 degrees Celsius (4,000 degrees Fahrenheit).
Following the deployment of two good drogues and three pilot chutes, Orion touched down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja, Calif., its shakedown journey completed with resounding success 4.5 hours following its fiery launch.
A lot has happened in the year following Orion’s maiden voyage on Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), which yielded more than 500 gigabytes of data to prove that the spacecraft’s many systems and subsystems performed as expected. As NASA enters 2016, just two years out from November 2018’s highly anticipated Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), those working on the Orion program continue to learn lessons from EFT-1, while working toward EM-1’s integrated test flight of Orion, its European Space Agency-manufactured service module, and NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) Block I rocket.
Initial Results and Building a Better Heat Shield
Just before Christmas 2014, EFT-1’s Orion capsule was returned to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, not far from where it was launched, for extensive post-flight analyses. The spacecraft was outfitted with thousands of sensors for its inaugural flight; NASA stated that the flight test yielded more than 500 GB of valuable data. Much scrutiny was also placed on the heat shield, which poses a vital role in getting a crew home safely. Around the same time, a video showing the vivid colors of Orion’s high-energy reentry was released by NASA.
By all outward appearances, Orion’s first flight appeared to be flawless. An AmericaSpace report from Dec. 19, 2014, stated that 85 of 87 of Orion’s flight objectives were met: “The two flight test objectives not met were considered to be minor and will be the first to undergo investigation at the start of the new year. The first objective was two airbags that deflated after Orion splashdown, and the second objective was one airbag that did not deploy.”
While technicians took core samples of the spacecraft’s heat shield around that time, in February Orion’s back shell and heat shield were removed for further testing. The heat shield was then delivered to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., known as the “home of SLS.” Engineers from NASA Ames and Marshall removed segments of the heat shield, fabricated in part with a material called Avcoat (which had also been utilized for the Apollo program’s Command Module), for inspection by various NASA researchers nationwide. In June, the heat shield was delivered to the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., for 2016 water testing.
While by all accounts EFT-1’s heat shield surpassed all expectations, changes were made to Orion’s thermal protection system for EM-1. On that flight, the capsule will make a circumlunar flight, exposing its surfaces to extreme cold/heat in space and, of course, fiery reentry conditions, further stressing the spacecraft. In January, NASA and Lockheed Martin added a 3-D woven thermal protection fabric, designed to fit between Orion and the service module. Six “quartz” compression pads will serve to absorb shock during launch and spaceflight operations; during reentry, the material will serve as an ablative thermal protection system.
A more effective way of building the heat shield was proposed. Orion’s EM-1 outer heat shield surface will consist of 180 blocks, versus having it fabricated in one single, massive piece. Just weeks ago, it was announced that the spacecraft’s back shell will be covered with a silvery, metallic thermal control coating, which will not only reduce heat loss in deep space, but will also limit high temperature exposure to the crew.
The Next Spacecraft Comes Together
The rest of the year saw NASA, its partners, and contractors come together to build the next Orion spacecraft. In May it was announced by NASA that an Orion crew module and adapter full-scale mockup was completed at Lockheed Martin’s Littleton, Colo., facility; the fabrication of these mockups will aid engineers in configuring vital vehicle components prior to the flight of EM-1. In September, the flown module from EFT-1 was returned to Littleton; according to NASA, this capsule will be used “to evaluate a new acoustic technology to determine if the method can produce enough energy to simulate the acoustic loads Orion will experience during launch and ascent atop SLS.”
In June, a Crew Module Adapter (CMA) simulator arrived at NASA Glenn’s Plum Brook Station for testing, including all-important acoustics and mechanical vibration tests to simulate launch conditions. Also in June it was announced that the contractor Orbital ATK would be responsible for Orion’s Launch Abort Motor.
As 2015 continued to progress, more milestones were surpassed in design and fabrication. During the summer, NASA also announced it would begin testing the vehicle’s European Space Agency (ESA)-supplied Service Module, with a test article delivered in October this year. The Service Module is based heavily on ESA’s Automated Test Vehicle (ATV), which delivered cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) from 2008 to 2014. In the next year, engineers will test the Service Module and its components to ensure it can survive the stresses of launch and spaceflight.
In September NASA announced that the first welds on the EM-1 spacecraft (to its pressure vessel) had been made at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, La. Aerojet Rocketdyne announced in October that it had completed a critical design review (CDR) for two vital systems, the Reaction Control System (RCS) and the jettison motor. Engineers have also evaluated changes to the spacecraft’s fairings and parachute system, the latter being vital to getting a crew home safely after a long voyage.
In October, Ben Evans wrote, “ … 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 addition to its focus upon the EM-1 spacecraft’s design, the review analyzed ‘additional common elements’—including the structure, pyrotechnics, LAS, software and Guidance, Navigation & Control (GNC)—which will be aboard EM-2, the first piloted Orion mission, presently scheduled to occur no later than April 2023.”
By the time of Evans’ writing, most of this CDR had been completed, clearing Orion to move into full-scale fabrication on track for the launch of EM-1 in late 2018. Lockheed Martin stated that this review included “the structure, pyrotechnics, Launch Abort System, software, guidance, navigation and control, and many others.”
More Testing Shows What’s In Store for Orion
While testing continues on spacecraft-related components, and a new Orion spacecraft is built, NASA and the space agency’s many aerospace contractors continue to work on other vital issues involving launch aborts and water testing. EFT-1’s Orion capsule will contribute directly to these two crucial objectives.
For the first time since the Apollo days, a spacecraft will have the capability to “rocket” itself away from a launch vehicle in the unfortunate case a mishap occurs during ascent. The space shuttle, which was in service from 1981 to 2011, did not have this kind of capability. While the shuttle had abort modes, it was not able to “rocket” itself to safety during a launch emergency. At worst, the spaceplane would have to perform a risky maneuver called “Return to Launch Site” (RTLS), where the flight crew would attempt to get the shuttle back to Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF). Fortunately, NASA never had to find out if an RTLS would work.
Orion, however, will rocket itself away from its launch vehicle in the event of an emergency. In 2018, prior to EM-1, EFT-1’s spacecraft will be used for the Ascent Abort Test-2 (AA-2), which will occur from Launch Complex 46 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
As noted in an AmericaSpace report earlier this year by photojournalist Elliot Severn, “On May 6, 2010, a prototype of the launch abort system was tested at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The launch abort system carried a boilerplate Orion capsule to an altitude of 6,000 feet, simulating a pad abort scenario. While the demonstration was successful, further development was put on hold when the Obama administration terminated NASA’s Constellation Program.”
EFT-1 did not require an abort motor to meet its mission objectives, instead an inert launch escape system was mounted to the vehicle to provide engineers at Orbital ATK with valuable data on structural, aerodynamic, and thermal loads experienced in flight. The launch escape system’s jettison motor, produced by Aerojet Rocketdyne, was also tested on EFT-1.
The capsule will be mounted aboard a Peacekeeper missile, while the abort system’s abort motor, attitude-control motor, and jettison motor will be given a full workout in demonstrating a crew can return home safely following a launch failure.
Moreover, EFT-1’s heat shield will be subjected to water impact testing at Langley Research Center’s Hydro Impact Basin in early 2016.
Lockheed plans to send the EM-1 pressure vessel to Kennedy Space Center’s Operations and Checkout Facility for final assembly, integration, and testing sometime in early 2016.
Looking Toward Orion’s Future
Space watchers are already planning for late 2018’s EM-1 flight, which will see the improved Orion integrated with its ESA Service Module and the SLS Block I launch vehicle, NASA’s most powerful heavy lift vehicle since the Apollo era’s Saturn V powerhouse. This flight will see Orion take a circumlunar path, once again testing the capsule’s thermal protection system as it is exposed to deeper space and even more stressful reentry conditions. Lasting for more than 20 days, this flight will certify Orion and SLS for future crewed missions. In September, it was announced that the first crewed Orion flight, Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2), would occur “No Later Than” April 2023.
Lockheed Martin’s Orion Vice President and Program Manager, Mike Hawes, underscored how close Orion is getting to its next moment in the spotlight. “The vast majority of Orion’s design is over, and now we will only change things when new requirements come into play. Considering the incredible complexity of this spacecraft, the team is very proud to have successfully completed the design review and is looking forward to seeing it fly,” he enthused.
What a long way Orion has come in just 12 short months. Rising one year ago today from Cape Canaveral on columns of vivid flame, the spacecraft has already undergone essential upgrades leading it on a course to deep space, a destination not reached by humankind in four long decades.
BELOW: Relive the launch of Orion EFT-1, one year ago today.
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