On July 2, the main structure of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Orion will be delivered from NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility located in New Orleans, where engineers have been busy constructing the main structure of the spacecraft. Orion’s delivery to KSC will mark a critical milestone in the preparation for its first test flight currently scheduled to take place in 2014.
That first test flight, called Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), will see the Lockheed-Martin-built spacecraft thunder away from Earth atop a mammoth 24-story tall United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy rocket. The mission will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37).
Orion will orbit the Earth twice and remain attached to the upper stage of the Delta-IV rocket. After the first orbit, the vehicle will perform a burn to reach an altitude of more than 3,600 miles – fifteen times higher than the orbit of the International Space Station and ten 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 miles per hour – nearly 5,000 miles per hour faster than the space shuttle. It will then parachute gently into the Pacific Ocean off the west coast United States.
VIDEO: Animation of the anticipated 2014 test flight of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) on Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1). Video Credit: NASAtelevision
Orion needs to demonstrate its thermal protection system works on re-entry, enduring temperatures 2,000 degrees hotter than any manned spacecraft since the days of Apollo. The plan is for the vehicle to ultimately be used for crewed deep-space missions on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) in the coming years. The EFT-1 re-entry phase of the flight will mirror return flights astronauts will endure when returning from voyages beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO).
The EFT-1 mission will be unique in that it is the first flight in 40 years (42 years in 2014) designed to send humans out of LEO and farther out into space – to the Moon, asteroids, and eventually Mars. Currently all commercial space ambitions are focused on just achieving LEO and providing launch services to government and private industry for LEO-related activities (such as crew and supply transportation to and from the International Space Station). Companies such as SpaceX have expressed interest in crewed voyages beyond LEO, but vehicles for those long missions are not in any development and testing phase like the Orion is. Private companies – with the exception of SpaceX – still need to prove they can even reach LEO safely and provide reliable ISS transport for NASA before thinking about ever going beyond LEO with crews.
Orion is being designed to be reusable for up to ten flights, capable of carrying four to six astronauts on missions to destinations deeper into space than any human spaceflight mission has ever been. The EFT-1 test flight will be conducted by Lockheed-Martin Space Systems under a NASA contract, serving to check the majority of Orion’s systems and provide teams on Earth with priceless experience and testing that can only be gained from an actual space flight. Test data from the unmanned flight will be used for additional design and development of the capsule which will ultimately fly fully operational crewed mission beyond LEO after 2020.
“There are people coast to coast building and developing Orion. Just as this test will check how it all works together in space, it already has pulled that team together on the ground,” said Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer. “Their diligence, dedication, and focus have been tremendous. They have truly excelled, and when the vehicle for this flight moves to the launch site (KSC), they will enter the final lap toward this test.”
Upon arrival at Kennedy Space Center in a couple weeks, the Orion EFT-1 vehicle will begin its next round of assembly; outfitting the spacecraft for its launch in 2014. With its launch pad only a few miles away, the spacecraft will be fully assembled and integrated on site in the 90,000 square foot Operations and Checkout Facility (O&C). The Apollo-era building recently completed a $55 million renovation, transforming it into a state-of-the-art multi-purpose-use facility to prepare for crewed deep space missions and support NASA’s new human space flight initiatives.
“President Obama and Congress laid out an ambitious space exploration plan, and NASA is moving out quickly to implement it,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver. “This flight test (EFT-1) will provide invaluable data to support the deep space exploration missions this nation is embarking upon.”
A test version of Orion, the Orion Ground Test Vehicle, has been at the O&C facility since April performing pathfinding operations in preparation for the arrival of the EFT-1 Orion July 2. The test version of Orion has already undergone rigorous tests to simulate launch and spaceflight environments at Lockheed Martin’s Waterton Facility near Denver, Colorado, and – after pathfinding operations are completed at KSC – will receive new backshell panels and head to Langley Research Center in Virginia for splash down testing at NASA’s Hydro Impact Basin.
The effort to get Orion, and the next generation of NASA’s human space program, going again truly is a nationwide effort. NASA’s SLS team in Huntsville, Alabama is developing a spacecraft adaptor, or interface ring, that will be used during NASA’s future SLS missions and will be tested on EFT-1. Last February a test model of Orion was dropped by the USAF from an altitude of 25,000 feet above Arizona to test the vehicle’s entry, descent, and landing parachutes – data which helped examine how disturbance of air flow behind the vehicle would affect the performance of Orion’s parachute system. Personnel at the Johnson Space Center in Houston have begun preparing Mission Control for the test flight as well, putting the Shuttle Flight Control Room back to work with EFT-1 simulations and training exercises – the first operational work in the Flight Control Room since Space Shuttle Atlantis landed on STS-135 and ended NASA’s 30-year shuttle program a year ago.
“This flight test is a challenge. It will be difficult. We have a lot of confidence in our design, but we are certain that we will find out things we do not know,” Geyer said. “Having the opportunity to do that early in our development is invaluable, because it will allow us to make adjustments now and address them much more efficiently than if we find changes are needed later. Our measure of success for this test will be in how we apply all of those lessons as we move forward.”
VIDEO: Progress being made as NASA builds America’s deep space exploration spacecraft. Video Credit: ReelNASA
The spacecraft, at first glance, resembles the Apollo Command and Service Modules – Orion’s CSM and CM are based on those vehicles. That, however, is where many of the similarities end. Orion is Apollo on steroids: its rocket launcher (SLS) is bigger and more powerful than Apollo’s Saturn-V, Orion’s Command Module (CM) is larger than Apollo’s (2.5 times the volume) and can support a larger crew for a longer time. The Service Module (SM) will provide additional space to mount cargo and experiments in addition to providing power and fuel to the spacecraft as well as storing oxygen and water. Orion will benefit from advances derived from the space shuttle program, featuring a “glass cockpit” and a NASA docking system similar to that which was used by the shuttle fleet. Life support, propulsion, thermal protection, and avionics systems will be upgradeable over time as new technologies become available.
After the EFT-1 test flight in 2014, Orion will be put through its first integrated launch in 2017 on the first flight of NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket, the vehicle chosen to replace the now retired space shuttle fleet. That test will put the entire integrated system that could return mankind to deep space travel into action. Crewed missions on Orion, launched atop NASA’s SLS, are expected to take place after 2020, with the spacecraft also being available as a backup for LEO missions to and from the ISS. Of course, these plans are dependent on NASA’s budget, which has been continuously slashed over the years by political leaders from both parties in Washington D.C.