CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — There has been talk in some quarters that NASA’s next manned spacecraft, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, will never fly. Someone should probably send NASA a memo. On Wednesday, Feb. 27, at the space agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, members of the media were taken on a tour of the Launch Abort System Facility where they got to see the Launch Abort System (LAS) that will be used on the first flight of Orion, currently slated to take place next year. This mission has been dubbed Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1).
No one company could develop and build Orion on its own. Even in terms of one component, multiple subcontractors are needed to provide the required hardware. While Lockheed Martin is busy with Orion, Alliant Techsystems was developing, testing, and building the LAS.
Alliant Techsystems, more commonly known as ATK, showcased the company’s LAS at an event held at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Abort Systems Facility (LASF). The solid fuel in this motor is inert. In fact the only working motor on this particular LAS is the jettison motor, which will be used to remove the LAS once Orion has reached orbit.
“I can’t express enough just how invaluable a piece of equipment this is for crews of upcoming missions; having flown on the space shuttle four times, we didn’t have a system like this on shuttle. The crew, when they’re on board the Orion capsule, will feel much more comfortable knowing that this abort motor and the entire abort system will be their savior should they need it,” said Brian Duffy, a former space shuttle commander who currently works at ATK. “From the time they are on the launch pad, until they are in a part of the flight profile where they no longer need an abort system and will jettison it, this system will work to keep them safe in the event of an accident.”
EFT-1 will be a unique mission. NASA’s Space Launch System, or “SLS,” is the United States’ planned next generation heavy-lift booster. It will not, however, be ready in time for EFT-1. As such, NASA has tapped United Launch Alliance to provide one of the company’s powerful Delta IV Heavy rockets to propel EFT-1 into orbit. Orion will then travel some 3,600 miles away from Earth and return at approximately 20,000 miles per hour. The purpose behind this is simple: when Orion returns to Earth at these speeds, its protective heat shield will be put to the ultimate test.
“During this mission we’ll take Orion out some 15 times higher than where the space station currently orbits and then bring it back,” said NASA Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer.
Meanwhile, in California, Aerojet announced that it has finished building both the jettison motor as well as the Crew Module Reaction Control System (CM RCS) pod assemblies for the Orion that will fly the EFT-1 mission.
The jettison motor stands out on the EFT-1 LAS, as it is the only active motor on the LAS structure. The LAS, provided by Utah-based Alliant Techsystems (ATK), is filled with inert fuel. While one might argue that there is no need for an escape system to be mounted to a spacecraft that will carry no crew—the opposite is true. EFT-1 is a test flight, providing NASA with data about the handling characteristics of the spacecraft. As such, having this Orion resemble as close as possible the real thing is crucial.“We are pleased to complete the EFT-1 flight jettison motor ahead of schedule and under budget,” said Aerojet Vice President of Space & Launch Systems Julie Van Kleeck. “Aerojet’s jettison motor represents the next generation in launch abort system technology. Our team has taken the Apollo-era launch abort motor design and significantly advanced it through the application of modern propellants, materials, and innovative design features.”
Aerojet has shipped the EFT-1 CM RCS pods components to the Operations and Checkout Building at KSC. These should provide the full complement of primary and secondary control required for maneuvers upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere.
Orion will use Aerojet’s MR-104G 160-lbf thrust monopropellant engines. These are legacy systems having been used on both of the Voyager missions, as well as Magellan’s mission to Venus. They also have been used on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Landsat satellites.
“This marks shipment of the first two pods in a series that will culminate in a total of eight pods comprised of four single engine and four dual engine pods,” said Van Kleeck. “The EFT-1 CM RCS builds upon the successful MR-104G Engine Design Verification Testing that was conducted in 2011.”
As mentioned in a previous article, the viability of the LAS to be used on EFT-1 has already been proven. The LAS propelled an Orion mockup some 6,000 feet in 2010 during the Pad Abort 1 test conducted at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
NASA is planning to use Orion to send astronauts beyond the orbit of Earth for the first time in over four decades. Destinations include the Moon, asteroids, Lagrange points, and, one day, Mars. (It should be noted that a trip to the Red Planet would require a far larger spacecraft than the Orion capsule.) After EFT-1, NASA plans to send Orion aloft atop an SLS rocket in 2017.
“Our progress is historic because this is about human spaceflight,” Van Kleeck said. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Aerojet hardware will be integral to virtually every phase of Orion’s mission, from launch to landing. We’ve been a part of human spaceflight since the Gemini program, and in a business where failure is not an option, our engines have achieved 100 percent mission success. We’re looking forward to delivering several more Orion milestones for NASA and Lockheed this year.”