A New Dawn: The Troubled History and Future Promise of NASA’s Orion Program (Part 3)

The "business end" of the three Common Booster Cores (CBCs) for the Delta IV Heavy are readied for America's next step towards deep space. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace
The “business end” of the three Common Booster Cores (CBCs) for the Delta IV Heavy are readied for America’s next step towards deep space. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace

Twelve days now remain before the long-awaited launch of Orion—the first human-capable vehicle for Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration in more than four decades—on its inaugural voyage. Liftoff of the Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 mission is scheduled to occur from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., at 7:05 a.m. EST on Thursday, 4 December. It will be boosted into the heavens by the Delta IV Heavy, the most powerful rocket currently in active operational service, anywhere in the world. The Heavy will deliver Orion to a peak altitude of 3,600 miles (5,800 km), whereupon the spacecraft will complete two orbits in 4.5 hours, then plunge back to Earth in excess of 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h), testing its heat shield at near-lunar-return velocities and temperatures of close to 2,200 degrees Celsius (4,000 degrees Fahrenheit).

The Orion spacecraft consists of two primary components, a conical Crew Module and a cylindrical Service Module, and is designed to eventually support deep-space missions of up to 21 days in duration, plus another six months in “quiescent” mode. The conical shape of the Crew Module was deemed the safest and most reliable means of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at the extreme velocities required for direct-return trajectory profiles from the Moon and destinations further afield. It stands 10 feet (3.3 meters) tall and measures 16.5 feet (5 meters) across its base, as opposed to 12.8 feet (3.9 meters) for the Apollo command module, thereby providing an interior volume of 690 cubic feet (19.5 cubic meters), significantly larger than its 1960s-era ancestor.

Moreover, the Crew Module is equipped with “smart cockpit” digital controls, derived from the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which will provide its future crews with enhanced situational awareness. “Whereas the shuttle’s cockpit screens are filled with data that astronauts have to interpret and act upon,” Flight International explained in October 2006, “Orion’s displays will use graphics along with enhanced synthetic vision and additional flight-related symbology.” At the apex of the Crew Module will be the NASA Docking System (NDS), which has compatibility with the two International Docking Adapters (IDAs), to be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a pair of SpaceX Dragon resupply missions in June and August 2015. Orion’s cabin atmosphere is an oxygen-nitrogen mixture at close to terrestrial sea-level pressure.

An artist's rendering of December's Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) test, which will take the Orion capsule 3,600 miles (5,800 km) into space. Image Credit: NASA
An artist’s rendering of December’s Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission, which will take the Orion capsule 3,600 miles (5,800 km) into space. Image Credit: NASA

Mounted at the base of the Crew Module is the cylindrical Service Module, which marks out Orion as the first piloted spacecraft in U.S. history—excluding space stations—to carry solar arrays. In the original design, the arrays took the form of two circular panels, deployed from the main body of the Service Module shortly after launch, which would give the spacecraft a total span of about 55.7 feet (17 meters). The Service Module stands 15.5 feet (4.8 meters) in height and measures 16 feet (5 meters) in diameter, with an empty mass of 8,000 pounds (3,700 kg). At its base is the Aerojet-built main engine, capable of 7,500 pounds (3,400 kg) of thrust, with a Reaction Control System (RCS) providing maneuverability and backup capability to execute the critical Trans-Earth Injection (TEI) “burn” from deep space. Inside the bowels of the Service Module, a pair of liquid oxygen tanks and smaller nitrogen tanks will maintain Orion’s habitability, whilst lithium hydroxide cartridges will scrub the crew’s exhaled carbon dioxide with oxygen and nitrogen and recycle them back into the life-support loop. The Service Module for EFT-1 has been fabricated by Lockheed Martin, with batteries in place of solar arrays, although that of the next flight in 2018 will be developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and will feature an X-shaped layout of four electricity-generating “wings.”

As described in last weekend’s AmericaSpace history articles, the formative years of Orion were a troubled time, mired in political, financial, and technical frustration, and by the spring of 2010—six years after President George W. Bush first announced the “Crew Exploration Vehicle” (CEV) as part of his Vision for Space Exploration (VSE)—the program was beginning to bear fruit, with Lockheed Martin having been selected as its prime contractor. Parachute tests were serving to validate Orion’s landing system, whilst rocket engine hardware for the powerful Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV) and Ares V Cargo Launch Vehicle (CaLV) was being steadily matured for service. Elsewhere, in October 2009, a four-segment Solid Rocket Booster (SRB), capped with a “dummy” fifth segment, was successfully test-launched from Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

Yet the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House in January 2009 brought a distinctly cooler reception of the VSE, whose overall architecture—the Constellation Program—sought to return astronauts to the Moon no later than 2020 and human exploration of Mars at some stage thereafter. During his election campaign, in the fall of 2007, Obama had expressed his desire to defer Constellation by five years and divert $5 billion of funding into education programs. Shortly after his inauguration, the president attacked Constellation as being “over-budget, behind schedule and lacking in innovation.”

In May 2009, at Obama’s direction, a Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee was established, with the goal of ensuring that NASA and the nation was on “a vigorous and sustainable path to achieving its boldest aspirations in space.” Chaired by Norman Augustine—who had earlier headed the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, in response to President George H.W. Bush’s ill-fated Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) plan in 1989-1990—the so-called “Augustine Commission” submitted its report to John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and to newly-appointed NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, in October 2009. It found that the Constellation Program was behind schedule, underfunded and over-budget and that these factors made its goals unachievable within NASA’s published time scale, unless further significant funding allocations were made.

President Barack Obama makes his remarks on future U.S. Space Policy at the Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Fla., on 15 April 2010. Photo Credit: Matt Travis
President Barack Obama makes his remarks on future U.S. Space Policy at the Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Fla., on 15 April 2010. Photo Credit: Matt Travis

The Augustine Commission did not recommend the cancellation of the program; rather, its criticism was not centered upon its technical viability or the preparedness of NASA and its contractors, but upon the funding issue. The commission advised that “destinations should derive from goals” and considered the Moon, Mars, and several Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) as potential candidates for human exploration, but favored a “Flexible Path” to locations within the inner Solar System, such as lunar orbit, Lagrangian Points, NEOs, and Phobos and Deimos, the twin moons of Mars, followed by exploration of the lunar or Martian surfaces, perhaps enabled by the development of propellant depots.

In light of the Augustine Commission’s report, Obama took steps to radically reshape America’s human space exploration architecture. In February 2010, he announced a proposal to cancel the program, effective with the 2011 budget, and on 15 April visited KSC to make a major speech on future U.S. space policy in the cavernous Operations and Checkout Building. Although the president pledged to increase NASA’s funding by $6 billion over five years, complete the design of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle by 2015 and provide a $40 million effort to assist the Space Coast workforce in the aftermath of the shuttle and Constellation programs, he rejected plans for a human return to the Moon and instead posed a crewed mission to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars orbit by the mid-2030s.

At one memorable moment in his speech, he even turned to attendee Buzz Aldrin—the second man to set foot on the lunar surface—and casually dismissed such an endeavor, remarking that “We’ve been there; Buzz has been there.” His decision was met with praise and criticism in equal measure, although Obama did offer a glimmer of hope that Orion would be modified to serve as an emergency Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) for the ISS. “We will build on the good work already done on the Orion crew capsule,” Obama explained. “I’ve directed Charlie Bolden to immediately begin developing a rescue vehicle using this technology, so we are not forced to rely on foreign providers if it becomes necessary to quickly bring our people home from the International Space Station. And this Orion effort will be part of the technological foundation for advanced spacecraft to be used in future deep-space missions. In fact, Orion will be readied for flight right here in this room.”

Several weeks later, on 28 June, Obama released his administration’s National Space Policy, and in October—despite criticism from former Administrator Mike Griffin—the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 was passed and signed into law, requiring within its language the development of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle and continued support for a crewed vehicle, capable of Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration, from 2016 onwards. By November 2010, NASA had announced the selection of 13 companies to submit proposals for a heavy-lift booster and with the passage of the 2011 budget allocation in April of the following year the Constellation Program was officially terminated. Bolden described it as having provided “a clear path forward to continue America’s leadership in human spaceflight, exploration and scientific discovery,” by lifting funding restrictions which “limited our flexibility to carry out our shared vision for the future.”

The capsule-inspired Orion spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA
The capsule-inspired Orion spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA

As part of this shared vision, Bolden made reference to a new “Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle” (MPCV), based on the original Orion design, which was formally unveiled on 24 May 2011. With the future responsibility for delivering astronauts to and from the ISS expected to be handed over to Commercial Crew partners, NASA was able to focus upon its deep-space exploration objectives. “As we aggressively continue our work on a heavy-lift launch vehicle,” Bolden explained, “we are moving forward with an existing contract to keep development of our new crew vehicle on track.” Lockheed Martin—previously selected in August 2006 to build Orion—continued working on the development of the spacecraft, although Doug Cooke, Associate Administrator for the Exploration Systems Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., stressed that the selection “does not indicate a business-as-usual mentality,” but rather as an indicator of the “exceptional creativity” of government and industry teams in keeping costs down through management techniques, technical solutions, and innovation.

With impressive pace, construction of the first Orion spacecraft got underway on 9 September 2011, a mere seven weeks after the landing of STS-135, the final mission of the 30-year shuttle era, when engineers at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, La., started the process of welding hardware. Construction utilized an innovative friction stir welding process, which created a seamless, leak-proof bond of exceptionally higher quality than could be achieved through conventional welding techniques. It marked the first new NASA spacecraft built to take humans to orbit since the shuttle Endeavour left the factory in the spring of 1991. Elsewhere, work on Orion’s parachute landing system resumed at the Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, N.M., with a successful drop-test on 22 September by a C-130 Hercules aircraft from an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,600 meters). The test involved the deployment of a pair of drogue chutes at 19,000 feet (5,800 meters), followed by three pilot chutes, which then released the three main canopies. Touchdown of the Orion test article was achieved at a speed of 17 mph (27.4 km/h). A further test in mid-December examined the parachute system’s capacity to adapt to contingencies, including the failure of one of its three main canopies to deploy, which produced a landing at 33 mph (53 km/h).

Confidence in the new design led NASA to announce on 8 November 2011 that Orion would perform the unpiloted Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 atop a mammoth Delta IV Heavy booster in early 2014. This decision laid out the framework for the mission which is currently entering its final stages at Space Launch Complex (SLC)-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. After launching into space, Orion would fly two orbits of Earth, “to a high apogee,” and its mission would conclude “with a high-energy re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere” and “a water landing” in the Pacific Ocean, just off the California coastline. Significantly, the high-apogee nature of EFT-1 would enable the collection of pertinent data to build a vehicle capable of protecting crews at velocities above 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h) and returning them from destinations beyond Earth orbit.

Alongside the decision to press ahead with fabrication of Orion and execute the EFT-1 mission, the new heavy-lift booster to deliver subsequent spacecraft into space received a name—the “Space Launch System” (SLS)—on 14 September 2011. Unlike the Constellation Program, which would have featured one vehicle (the Ares I) for Orion and another (the Ares V) for cargo, it was intended from the outset that the SLS would fulfil both roles. Described as America’s most powerful rocket since the Saturn V, it was lauded by Bolden as carrying the potential to “create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space and inspire millions around the world.” The SLS grew out of the technologies already in place for the Constellation Program’s unrealized Ares V, with shuttle-era RS-25D main engines and a pair of five-segment Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) providing core propulsion for its first stage and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne’s J-2X powerplant feeding the upper stage. By this time, testing of the J-2X had resumed, with evaluations at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Miss., from June 2011 onward, culminating in a 500-second, full-duration firing on 9 November.

NASA's Orion spacecraft command module (top) is now attached to its service Module (bottom), complete with heat shied for the EFT-1 mission scheduled to fly on December 4, 2014. The spacecraft is currently undergoing integrated testing before being moved to another facility for fueling. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
NASA’s Orion spacecraft command module (top) is now attached to its service Module (bottom), complete with heat shied for the EFT-1 mission scheduled to fly on December 4, 2014. The spacecraft is currently undergoing integrated testing before being moved to another facility for fueling. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

Two months later, the process of transferring NASA’s inventory of RS-25D main engines from KSC to Stennis for SLS modification got underway. In the meantime, J-2X powerpack testing continued—achieving a record-setting 1,150 seconds in one firing—and, by March 2012, NASA had successfully tested a sub-scale motor for the five-segment SRB at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The 20-second firing served to evaluate new materials for the lining of the booster’s nozzle, ahead of a planned Qualification Test (QM)-1 in the spring of 2013. With remarkable speed, SLS moved swiftly through a major technical review of its 200-foot-tall (61-meter), RS-25D-fed core stage in June 2012. This served as “the first major checkpoint” of the program, according to Tony Lavoie, manager of the SLS Stages Element at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and allowed it to move from the concept into the design stage. Completion of a combined System Requirements Review and System Definition Review in July established requirements for the entire vehicle, allowing the new booster to advance into its preliminary design phase.

Elsewhere, efforts to modify the mobile launch hardware for SLS got underway, through contracts awarded in early 2013, and the following 31 July the program sailed through its Preliminary Design Review (PDR). The latter finally allowed the new booster to advance into the hardware fabrication stage, ensuring that the core stage could integrate safely with the RS-25D main engines, the five-segment SRBs, the Orion spacecraft and the KSC launch infrastructure. “In two short years from the first announcement of the Space Launch System, we are at a milestone that validates the detailed design and integration of the system,” said Dan Dumbacher, NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “You can feel the momentum of the workforce as we produce test hardware today. We are creating a national capability and we will get this country, and the world, exploring deep space.”

Testing of the booster’s autonomous flight control system was trialed aboard an F/A-18 research aircraft in November 2013 from the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to ascertain how well it responded to vehicle and environmental variations, including propellant sloshing and key vibrational characteristics which might be encountered during the first two minutes of an SLS ascent. “By flying a high-performance F/A-18 jet in a similar manner to our rocket, we’re able to simulate SLS flight conditions and improve our software,” explained Tannen Van Zwieten, SLS flight controls working lead. “The innovative system that we are testing at Dryden is advancing flight control technology by adding an adaptive element, which is new for launch vehicles. We’re using this technology to expand the capabilities of the SLS a more than what is possible with a traditional design.”

First light of the booster’s flight software and avionics occurred in January 2014, followed by tests of a scale model of the sound suppression system and this work culminated in August with Key Decision Point (KDP)-C, which provided a development cost baseline for the initial variant of the SLS. The review produced a revised target of “no later than November 2018” for the maiden launch of the new booster, carrying an unpiloted Orion on Exploration Mission (EM)-1 into deep space. Two weeks later, the 178-foot-tall (54.2-meter) Vertical Assembly Center was officially opened at the Michoud Assembly Facility, ready to begin the construction of the core stage which will deliver an SLS into orbit, a few short years from now. Moreover, as the design evolved, the J-2X was removed from the second stage, in favor of an Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) and Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), based upon the RL-10B2 liquid hydrogen/oxygen cryogenic engine for the Exploration Mission (EM)-1 and beyond.

By this stage, plans for the EFT-1 inaugural voyage of Orion had settled on a launch attempt in September 2014. Although the maiden flight of the SLS itself was not anticipated before 2017-2018, it appeared that after a decade of hard work by thousands of personnel and numerous technical, political, and financial difficulties, America was ready to begin its first steps beyond low-Earth orbit in more than four decades.


The final part of this Orion history series of articles will appear tomorrow.



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