Contractors across the U.S. are moving forward and building the initial components for the next vehicle in NASA’s line of Orion spacecraft, EM-1, even as engineers from NASA and prime contractor Lockheed Martin analyze and assess all the critical data collected from its “almost flawless” maiden mission on the recently completed EFT-1 unmanned test flight.
Orion is NASA’s next generation crew capsule and the lynchpin of NASA’s strategy to once again carry humans beyond Earth on voyages to deep space destinations in our Solar System.
Virtually every aspect went well with the EFT-1 flight, and an initial two week quick look report has already been handed over to NASA, said Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Vice President and Program Manager for Orion, at a media briefing on Feb. 18.
The full 90-day report from Lockheed to NASA will follow in early March.
The capsules systems, avionics, separation events, and heat shield all performed as expected, said Hawes. Over 600 gigabytes of data were recorded on board and are being analyzed to aid the design and development of future Orions.
“On March 5 we will have an all day engineering data review with NASA to discuss the results of the 90 day report, following by a structured report,” said Hawes.
One of the primary EFT-1 objectives was to test the heat shield.
“The heat shield looks in great shape.”
Both the heat shield and back shell panels were removed to give technicians access to Orion’s interior for a thorough examination and detailed investigation of all its equipment and components.
The one issue was the failure of several of the uprighting bags to deploy after the ocean splashdown.
NASA’s overriding goal is to send our astronauts on a “Journey to Mars” by the 2030s, as NASA Administrator Charles Bolden repeatedly states at every venue he speaks.
“It was just a few short years ago that President Obama … committed us to a Journey to Mars, beginning with an unprecedented mission to send astronauts to an asteroid as part of a stepping stone approach to reach the Red Planet,” Bolden stated during a “State of NASA” address at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Feb. 2, as part of the Fiscal Year 2016 budget rollout.
NASA’s first flight worthy Orion capsule just flew to space and back during its inaugural test flight on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission barely two months ago.
Orion’s next unmanned voyage on the Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) test flight is slated for November 2018 during the inaugural launch of the agency’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, concurrently under development.
“NASA is firmly on a journey to Mars. Make no mistake, this journey will help guide and define our generation,” says Bolden.
Orion EFT-1 roared to space during a picture perfect launch on Dec. 5, 2014, atop the 242-foot-tall United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket—the world’s most powerful booster—at 7:05 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The Delta IV Heavy boosted Orion on a two-orbit, 4.5-hour flight that carried the EFT-1 capsule to an altitude of 3,604 miles. During Orion’s high speed atmospheric reentry, it approached speeds of 20,000 mph (32,000 kph), or about 85 percent of the reentry velocity for astronauts returning from journeys to deep space destinations like the Moon, asteroids, and Mars.
It endured scorching temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2200 C) to test the 16.5-foot-wide heat shield and thermal protection tiles during the 10-minute descent.
After being slowed by the trio of massive red and white main parachutes to about 17 mph (27 kph), Orion safely accomplished a statistical bulls-eye splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, some 600 miles southwest of San Diego, within one mile of the predicted touchdown spot.
The capsule was recovered from the Pacific by a combined team from NASA, the U.S. Navy, and Lockheed Martin. Navy divers safely towed it into the flooded well deck of the USS Anchorage. It was off-loaded at U.S. Naval Base San Diego, and hauled 2700 miles cross country from California on a flat bed truck back to KSC, arriving on Dec. 19, just before the Christmas holidays.
“Orion is in incredible shape!” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told AmericaSpace during a prior interview at Bally Ribbon Mills in Bally, Penn., on Jan. 9. “It gives a lot of confidence [for the future].”
“The flight was almost flawless,” Bolden said, based on the initial quick look data and detailed here.
The spacecraft was loaded with over 1,200 sensors to collect critical performance data on numerous systems throughout the mission for evaluation by engineers.
“There were many lessons learned from EFT-1,” said Hawes.
Now, engineers from NASA and Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin are working to glean insight and wisdom from the millions of elements of data on every piece of Orion structure, compare it to pre-flight models, improve the spacecraft’s design, transport the astronauts to deep space destinations like Mars, and return them safely home.
One of the top objectives of EFT-1 was to test the heat shield, noted Hawes.
“The heat shield looks in great shape,” said Hawes “The char on the shield is consistent. If you look at it now, you’d see a few big holes because we’ve taken core samples. Those are being tested and analyzed now.”
Those holes from the core samples can be seen in the photos herein.
“We’ve also done a total laser scan of the under surface of the heat shield. That’ll give us a very detailed engineering base of knowledge of what the heat shield did. Now with the flight test data, the models get rooted in real data. That’s a huge step in our development path.”
“The heat shield has been removed. In March it will be shipped to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center [in Huntsville, Alabama], where the Avcoat ablative material will be machined off and removed.
“Then the heat shield structure with a composite titanium base will be shipped to NASA’s Langley Research Center [in Hampton, Va.], for water impact testing on a test article capsule.”
Hawes also said that NASA and Lockheed Martin are evaluating some potential modifications to the heat shield’s design to make it even stronger.
For example, they need to decide on a single monolithic heat shield or one made of blocks. The titanium structure was manufactured by Lockheed in Denver, Colo., and the Avcoat was then applied at Textron in Massachusetts.
“There are some manufacturing trades involved between using a single monolithic shape or whether it is made up of blocks. That is being done with NASA.”
“We knew that there some areas of the curvature that looked like they were lower strength than we had expected,” Hawes explained. “All of those areas survived the flight extremely well. So that gives us some confidence in some of the shortcomings of what we thought about the monolithic structure. We’re still worried overall over the manufacturability of the monolithic shape just because it’s very hand touch labor intensive.”
Another heat shield component that will certainly change are the compression pads at the interface between the command and service module.
Read my detailed interview with Hawes and the NASA Ames team in these prior Orion articles: here and here.
Regarding radiation protection, Orion flew through the Van Allen radiation belts.
“The avionics data tells us we flew through the high radiation belts. But the restarts in the video processing units were not driven by the belts,” said Hawes.
Much less fuel was used compared to the predicted usage since all the separation events went much better than expected.
“All the separation events were big deals, such as jettison of the launch abort tower, service module panels and finally separation of the crew and service modules for reentry. All those events worked great and happened within fractions of a second of when they were timed to be done.”
“The guidance and navigation control systems worked extraordinarily well. Also the reaction control system worked extremely well. They steered the capsule integrated with the propulsion system very well. So we used much less fuel than anticipated because it was all so precise.”
“Most of the hydrazine fuel and ammonia fuel has now been removed so that the crews can get in and finish servicing the vehicle,” said Hawes.
“We are looking at better ways of deservicing the fuels.”
“The camera views came out very well, especially the view out the hatch window of the plasma,” said Hawes. “We learned you can’t have enough cameras. So we’re in the midst of trades on imagery right now in terms of the follow-on plan in how we incorporate more imagery and wireless systems in the future.”
The parachute and ocean recovery operations went well and the team is still deciding whether to take the crew out within a few hours of landing or not.
“All 11 parachutes worked. But we only recovered two of the three main parachutes.”
The one significant issue was the failure of three of the five uprighting bags to deploy after splashdown.
“We had an issue with the uprighting system. We are looking at that and are in the midst of troubleshooting it.”
“Two inflated fully, one only partially and two not inflated at all.”
There may be a “problem with the bags themselves,” said Hawes.
“Particularly on the three bags that didn’t inflate, we’re doing analysis now. It looks like perhaps there are problems with the bags themselves. We’ve looked at the plumbing. We’ve looked at the gas supply system, and it looks perhaps like it may be issues with the bag material itself that had some small cracks develop that then prevented it from holding pressure. But that’s still preliminary.”
“So we learned a huge amount and there are a lot of lessons learned that will be in the report and that we can apply to the next capsule.”
“We also learned how to turn the O & C building into a manufacturing facility.”
The Orion EM-1 capsule is now being built and will include volumes of lessons learned from the development and test flight of the EFT-1 capsule.
“Right now we are building the primary structure for EM-1 at machine houses across the country. Avionics components are on order and being built as well as simulators.”
The European Space Agency (ESA) is building the Orion service module based on the ATV cargo craft design. It will house the spacecraft’s propulsion. The solar arrays are being delivered.
“So this year is about getting the next crew module, EM-1, under construction.”
The team hopes to have the primary structure “down at the Cape by the end of the year, and then the engineers can start doing all the outfitting in the O& C facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.”
Orion EM-1 will start the path to the eventual Mars journey when it launches on a shakedown cruise for a multi-week uncrewed test flight that will carry it beyond the Moon’s orbit, farther than any human-rated vehicle has traveled since Apollo 17 in 1972.
“Orion’s flight test was a big success and what we learned is informing how that will help us pioneer deep space destinations,” said Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion Program manager.
“Taking a look at all the flight test data is a huge part of the development process and a key part off in why we flew a test flight. We have critical work happening this year, both on the data analysis and development side, to keep us moving toward our first mission with SLS.”
Read my story about the re-flight of the EFT-1 capsule on the Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) mission here. It’s due to launch atop a Peacekeeper missile from Space Launch Complex 46 (SLC-46) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Stay tuned here for continuing updates on Orion and more.
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When the first manned Orion capsule finally swings around the moon, tourists at a Bigelow-SpaceX hotel will take selfies with it.
Excellent post, Ken. This test flight marks a significant step to a long-anticipated return of US manned space capabilities. It will be interesting to see “high-def” pictures of the Earth and Moon from deep space.
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