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Recently Declassified USAF Space Surveillance Program Pushes Orion Flight Test to December

NASA's Orion spacecraft will launch on EFT-1 NET Dec. 2014 atop a ULA Delta-IV Heavy rocket, the same pictured here launching a top secret payload for the U.S. Gov't on mission NROL-15. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

NASA’s Orion spacecraft will launch on EFT-1 NET in December 2014 atop a ULA Delta-IV Heavy rocket, the same pictured here launching a top-secret payload for the U.S. Government on mission NROL-15. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

One of the most anticipated spaceflights of the last couple years is now delayed by nearly three months to give priority to U.S. military satellites that need to launch, too. Being that military satellites concern national security, the first flight of NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle will now occur no earlier than early December 2014.

“The Orion team continues to work toward completing the spacecraft. However, the initial timeframe for the launch of Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) has shifted from September-October to early December to support allowing more opportunities for launches this year,” according to a press release issued by NASA on March 14. “Completing the spacecraft according to the original schedule will allow many engineers and technicians to continue transitioning to work on the Orion spacecraft that will fly atop the agency’s Space Launch System. It will also ensure that NASA’s partners are fully ready for the launch of EFT-1 at the earliest opportunity on the manifest.”

Technicians work inside the Orion crew module at Kennedy Space Center for its first mission, Exploration Flight Test-1, now expected to launch NET Dec. 2014. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

Technicians work inside the Orion crew module at Kennedy Space Center for its first mission, Exploration Flight Test-1, now expected to launch NET Dec. 2014. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

It’s important to note that the delay has nothing to do with Orion’s processing at Kennedy Space Center for the upcoming launch, nor is it related to any problems with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV rocket which will send Orion off on its spaceflight test. Orion’s processing in Kennedy’s Operations and Checkout Facility continues to move forward; construction on the service module was completed in January, and the service module passed the stress tests that followed with flying colors.

The service module sits below Orion’s crew module and above the rocket, housing a number of systems and providing power and in-space propulsion for the spacecraft.

With nearly all of Orion’s avionics components now installed, engineers are carrying out functional testing on the crew module, methodically powering up each of Orion’s 59 systems—one by one. According to NASA: “Each connector is being checked individually before they’re hooked up and the system turned on to make sure each battery, heater, camera and processor – to name a few – works on its own, before the entire system is turned on together. Otherwise, one faulty cable could damage an entire, one-of-a-kind system.”

Once Orion passes functional testing, engineers will move on to performance testing, where all of the systems work together to operate Orion as a whole. Ultimately, engineers will be able to turn on all of the flight computers, radios, and other systems at once and simulate the vehicle’s sensors to fool the spacecraft into thinking it is flying in space. Testing of the mentioned systems is expected to wrap up in April, at which time Orion’s heat shield—the largest of its kind ever built—will be installed. With that in place, the crew module, service module, and launch abort system will be ready to mate this spring.

A barge arrives at the U.S. Army Outpost wharf at Port Canaveral in Florida, carrying two of the three ULA Delta-IV heavy boosters for NASA’s upcoming EFT-1 flight with the Orion spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA

A barge arrives at the U.S. Army Outpost wharf at Port Canaveral in Florida, carrying two of the three ULA Delta-IV heavy boosters for NASA’s upcoming EFT-1 flight with the Orion spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA

The rocket itself is already at Cape Canaveral—well, most of it. … The core and starboard boosters of the Delta-IV Heavy rocket, which will send Orion on its EFT-1 flight, arrived at the launch site just a couple weeks ago, and the remaining booster (still in production) and upper-stage of the rocket will arrive at Cape Canaveral sometime in April.

Sources blame the slip from a September/October launch to a December launch on two satellites ULA must place into orbit for the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP), a new initiative which is part of a recently declassified “neighborhood watch” satellite program by the U.S. Air Force to monitor spacecraft from other countries and track space debris.

“GSSAP will produce a significant improvement in space object surveillance, not only for better collision avoidance but also for detecting threats,” said head of Air Force Space Command General William Shelton at a speech announcing the program publicly at the Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., last month. “As other nations show their commitment in investing in systems capable of harming our satellites, we are committed to investing in space surveillance assets like GSSAP that will directly enable safe operations, protect our spacecraft, and indirectly enable a range of decisive responses that will enable counterspace threats ineffective.”

The two satellites, which are being built by Orbital Sciences Corporation of Virginia, will launch this fall from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a ULA Delta-IV rocket, eventually operating in a “near-geosynchronous orbit regime with a clear, unobstructed and distinct vantage point for viewing resident space objects orbiting earth in a near-geosynchronous orbit, without the disruption of weather or atmosphere that can limit ground-based systems,” according to General Shelton.

“Some of our most precious satellites fly in that orbit – one cheap shot against the AEHF constellation would be devastating,” added Shelton. “Similarly, with our Space Based Infrared System, SBIRS, one cheap shot creates a hole in our environment. GSSAP will bolster our ability to discern when adversaries attempt to avoid detection and to discover capabilities they may have which might be harmful to our critical assets at these higher altitudes.”

Two ULA Atlas-V rockets are on the Cape’s manifest to launch this fall, as well as a SpaceX Falcon-9 on a contracted NASA ISS resupply mission, in addition to the DoD Delta-IV launch blamed for EFT-1’s slip to a later launch date.

Under EFT-1, Orion will conduct two orbits of the Earth and then return to Earth at a blistering 20,000 miles per hour. This test will prove out Orion's heat shield, parachute and other crucial systems. Image Credit: NASA

Under EFT-1, Orion will conduct two orbits of the Earth and then return to Earth at a blistering 20,000 mph. This test will prove out Orion’s heat shield, parachute, and other crucial systems. Image Credit: NASA

Orion’s first flight later this year will be a crucial step toward development of a crewed version for later in the decade, one which NASA intends to use for deep-space human exploration while leaving low-Earth orbit activities to commercial companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. ULA’s Delta-IV Heavy rocket will send Orion to orbit the Earth twice, while remaining attached to the rocket’s upper stage. After the first orbit 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.

Orion is being designed to be reusable for up to 10 flights, capable of carrying four to six astronauts on missions to destinations deeper into space than any human spaceflight mission has ever been. EFT-1 will serve 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 a fully operational crewed mission beyond LEO atop NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) as early as 2021.

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8 comments to Recently Declassified USAF Space Surveillance Program Pushes Orion Flight Test to December

  • Stuart

    OOPs didn’t see this coming… a defence mission. Could SpaceX help out with Falcon Heavy?

    • No, SpaceX needs to prove Falcon Heavy can even do its job first before anyone puts their spacecraft / payloads on top of it. SpaceX has a tendency to delay too, a lot, so their rocket – which has never flown – is not the answer

  • Did the Air Force bump the Orion mission because of the higher DOD payload priority, or was NASA a willing partner in a manifest swap? I think the latter. Inferring that this was an Air Force-imposed manifest change gives ammunition to those who would argue (incorrectly) that new users at the Eastern Range can lose their launch slots whenever the Air Force needs one.

    • It’s the former, not the latter, according to my own sources, AvWeek, and Chris Bergen over at NASASpaceFlight.com. NASA fought and lost to keep its launch slot. This launch change had been brewing for the last couple of months.

      • NASA had to be willing. I heard the LC-37 mods for Orion were a point of schedule concern, for both missions.

        • I had not heard about the LC-37 mods being a long pole in launching both missions. I just hope the slip in the Orion schedule doesn’t give the program’s opponents ammunition.

          • john hare

            I think that rather a vain hope as people with a staked out position will use any excuse to bash the opposition, whether legitimate or not.