The Orion spacecraft destined to fly atop NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) in late 2018 on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is now at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. NASA’s Super Guppy transport aircraft delivered the crew module’s completed underlying structure, the pressure vessel which provides a sealed environment for astronaut life support, from Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to KSC this afternoon (Feb. 1, 2016).
Super Guppy landed on KSC’s runway 15 shortly after 3:40 p.m. EST, marking only the second human-capable spacecraft for Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration to arrive on Florida’s “Space Coast” in more than four decades (the first was Orion EFT-1), and it is destined to travel farther than any human-rated vehicle in history.
As noted previously by Ben Evans, NASA hopes Orion and SLS will spearhead U.S. ambitions to expand a human presence beyond low-Earth orbit, to the Moon, to near-Earth asteroids, and ultimately as far afield as Mars by the late 2030s. The program to develop such a vehicle was first conceived in President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), unveiled in January 2004. Originally named the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), it was renamed “Orion” in August 2006, but both it and its umbrella “Constellation Program” met with political opposition and inadequate funding and were terminated by President Barack Obama in 2010.
However, development of Orion continued, and in May 2011 it was “reborn” as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Six months later the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission was baselined, and on Dec. 5, 2014 Orion made its first flight to space atop a ULA Delta-IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-37B on EFT-1. The orbital shakedown flight demonstrated Orion’s capacity to endure the high radiation environment of the lower Van Allen Belts and survive a fiery re-entry in excess of 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h), a velocity that brings with it temperatures upwards of 2,200 degrees Celsius (4,000 degrees Fahrenheit).
Orion and its crews will experience even higher velocities and re-entry temperatures when returning from beyond the moon starting in the first half of the 2020s. Orion EM-1 will experience a faster return from lunar velocity, as high as 24,545 mph (39,501 km/h), equivalent to about 36,000 feet per second, as opposed to the 30,000 feet per second of Orion EFT-1.
“While the speed difference may seem subtle, the heating the vehicle sees increases exponentially as the speed increases,” NASA explained. “The work engineering teams across the country are doing prepares Orion’s heat shield to perform re-entry during any of missions planned near the Moon or in high lunar orbit in the coming years.”
EFT-1 itself went about as flawless as NASA could have hoped for, and the more than 500 GB of data collected proved its worth as engineers with Lockheed Martin began construction of the first vehicle to fly on the un-crewed maiden SLS EM-1 mission. One major change is the build of the primary structure itself now at KSC. Engineers reduced the number of welds for the crew module by more than half; fewer welds = a lighter spacecraft.
According to NASA, the first crew module structure that was built and used for engineering tests and evaluations required 33 weld operations. The number of welds required for the Orion structure that flew EFT-1 was reduced to 19, and further innovations have now reduced the weld quantity to 15 for the EM-1 spacecraft.
Seven large aluminum pieces were cleaned, coated with a protective chemical and primed to protect from corrosion before each element was outfitted with strain gauges and wiring to monitor the metal during the fabrication process. Each piece was then inspected and evaluated to ensure meeting precise design requirements before being welded together using a state-of-the-art process called friction-stir welding, which produces very strong bonds by transforming metals from a solid into a plastic-like state, and then using a rotating pin tool to soften, stir and forge a bond between two metal components to form a uniform welded joint.
“The team at Michoud has worked incredibly hard to produce a lightweight, yet incredibly durable Orion structure ready for its mission thousands of miles beyond the moon,” said Mark Kirasich, Orion program manager. “The work to get us to this point has been essential. Orion’s pressure vessel is the foundation on which all of the spacecraft’s systems and subsystems are going to be built and integrated.”
The EM-1 Orion’s thermal protection system will also evolve from the EFT-1 flight article. As reported previously, while EFT-1’s heat shield surpassed expectations, changes were made for the EM-1 spacecraft. NASA and Lockheed added a 3-D woven thermal protection fabric soon after EFT-1, designed to fit between Orion and the service module. Six “quartz” compression pads will serve to absorb shock during launch and spaceflight operations; during reentry, the material will serve as an ablative thermal protection system.
A more effective way of building the heat shield was also proposed. Orion’s outer heat shield surface will consist of 180 blocks, versus having it fabricated in one single, massive piece. The spacecraft’s back shell will be covered with a silvery, metallic thermal control coating, which will not only reduce heat loss in deep space, but will also limit high temperature exposure to the crew.
Processing work on Orion will take place in the Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout Facility (O&C building), prior to being integrated later with the SLS in KSC’s nearby Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for processing for flight from Launch Complex-39B on the EM-1 mission in late 2018.
View our photo gallery of Orion EM-1 at Michoud HERE.
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