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Orion is Three Milestones Closer to Launch

This animation still shows Orion separating from its rocket during EFT-1, the unmanned mission designed to demonstrate the spacecraft’s re-entry systems. Image Credit: NASA

Things are looking good for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The agency announced yesterday the program has passed a number of significant milestones recently. The tools that will mate the pieces of Orion’s heat shield, the adapters that will connect the spacecraft to its launch vehicle, as well as the launch and recovery crews based at Kennedy, all have a green light to move forward towards 2014’s Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1).

One vital piece of hardware that needs to work before Orion can fly is a tool that will allow technicians to mate the spacecraft’s heat shield’s titanium skeleton to its carbon-fiber skin. At the Denver facility of prime contractor Lockheed Martin, workers can begin assembling the heat shield, a job that means installing some 3,000 bolts while the piece sits in a special stand that keeps the skin and the skeleton aligned. The mating should be done sometime in January, at which point the heat shield will be shipped to Textron Defense Systems near Boston where it will gain a layer of ablative material. The completed heat shield should be ready and at NASA’s facilities at the Kennedy Spaceflight Center next summer.

An artist’s concept of Orion reentering its atmosphere, the heat shield bearing the brunt of the fire to spare the capsule. Image Credit: NASA

The heat shield is, of course, the star of the EFT-1 mission; it’s the main system to be tested on the flight. This inaugural flight will see Orion fly more than 3,600 miles above Earth’s surface, more than 15 times farther than the International Space Station’s that orbits the Earth at about 200 miles. From its apogee, Orion will reenter the atmosphere traveling almost 5,000 mph faster than any current vehicle. It’s about as close to a reentry from the Moon as NASA can get without leaving Earth orbit.

For Orion to reach its high orbit, it needs to ride a rocket and that means it needs to be mated, in this case, to a Delta IV. This week, engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville received the materials they need to start building the adapter that will connect Orion to Delta. The system consists of four rings, two forward and two aft, welded to barrel panels to form two adapters. One of the two adapters will attach Orion to the Delta IV, while the other will be a structural test article. Marshall will use this one to gain knowledge on the adapter’s design, data that will provide invaluable experience developing hardware early in the design process. It’s an important test. If the system works on EFT-1, the same adapter will connect Orion to its designated rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). And, pending success, reusing this design will ultimately cut some costs associated with Orion/SLS missions.

Orion’s EFT-1 mission is summarized in this graphic. Image Credit: NASA

Last of the latest major milestones, NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) Program passed a major review. This is the branch that lays the groundwork at Kennedy to support Orion/SLS launches, a team that is streamlining the overall processes to provide the nation with a safe, affordable, and sustainable launch facility. An independent board of technical experts from across NASA evaluated the GSDO program’s infrastructure specifications, budget, and schedule, ultimately confirming that the program is ready to move from concept development to preliminary design. The GSDO program also led the third Stationary Recovery Test Working Group session in Norfolk, Va. The team presented a complete list of the tasks included in stationary recovery test objectives to the U.S. Navy detachment that will actually recover the capsule during EFT-1 mission.

“These recent milestones are laying the foundation for our first flight test of Orion in 2014,” said deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, Dan Dumbacher, at NASA’s Headquarters in Washington. “The work being done to prepare for the flight test is really a nationwide effort, and we have a dedicated team committed to our goal of expanding the frontier of space.” If things keep going this way, we just might see Orion launch right on time.

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