Nearly two years after NASA successfully completed the first in-flight test of its Orion crew module during Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), the next Orion spacecraft continues to take shape as it gets ready for its first integrated flight test to the Moon and back atop NASA’s giant SLS heavy-lift rocket, due to launch in late 2018 (at the earliest).
The first propellant system tube welds have now taken place on Orion’s pressure vessel, and its all-important heat shield arrived at NASA’s Landing Facility (formerly the SLF) at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Aug. 25.
In addition, Aerojet Rocketdyne announced this week that they successfully tested the spacecraft’s jettison motor, which is an essential part of Orion’s Launch Abort System (LAS). Orion is NASA’s next-generation spacecraft, meant to perform missions in deep space, including eventual crewed missions to Mars in the coming decades.
Orion Capsule Meets Important Milestones, But Plenty More to Come
The Orion spacecraft destined for 2018’s Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), currently under assembly at KSC’s Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building high bay, was verified to have its first propellant system welds completed by Lockheed Martin’s subcontractor engineers, technicians, and x-ray specialists, according to the space agency (Lockheed Martin is Orion’s prime contractor). It is critical that these systems are checked and double-checked to be secure and leak-free, as propellant lines have been welded around the vehicle. This process, which took place in a clean room environment, will be repeated until the propulsion system has been completed; this system will provide the spacecraft with thrust and maneuvering capabilities during missions in deep space, where Orion is destined to visit.
Scott Wilson, NASA manager of production operations for the Orion Program, underscored the significance of this particular development: “Completion of the first Orion propulsion system welds marks an important milestone for production of the next spacecraft for flight. We are moving from assembling structure to installing the critical systems that will propel Orion farther and farther from Earth than human-capable spacecraft ever have journeyed. Our human journey to Mars is underway. It is milestones like these that mark our progress to deep space.”
Another significant development involves the arrival of Orion’s essential heat shield, which arrived at KSC via a “Super Guppy” aircraft on Aug. 25. This component of the spacecraft, manufactured by Lockheed Martin in Denver, Colo., was also loaded into the Armstrong O&C building’s high bay for installation. The heat shield will protect the capsule (and, of course, its astronauts and passengers) from the intense heat of reentry from deep space, projected to be approximately 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (at best, a toasty ride).
While Orion continues to gain its fluid propulsion and thermal protection systems, it still has a way to go before it is truly flight-ready. Orion will need to be mated to its European Space Agency (ESA)-built service module. Following that, it will visit the Multi-Payload Processing Facility (MPPF) to receive its maneuvering fuel. Skip Williams, NASA project manager for the spacecraft offline element integration team, reported that Orion will receive “monomethyl hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide for the service module main engine and the crew module and service module reaction control thrusters. Also, ammonia for the cooling system and a Freon loop for the service module heat exchanger.” Before Orion is mated to its Block 1 Space Launch System rocket, it then must be fitted with its launch abort tower and fairing. Orion’s Launch Abort System (LAS) recently reached a major milestone of its own.
Aerojet Rocketdyne Successfully Tests LAS’s Jettison Motor
The Orion/SLS system will also have a Launch Abort System (LAS) that is designed to carry a crew to safety in case an accident or anomaly happens during launch from KSC’s Launch Complex 39B, or ascent. This will be the first time a NASA crewed vehicle has had this capability since the Apollo era. The LAS consists of three essential components, according to Aerojet Rocketdyne. The abort motor serves to pull the crew module away from the launch vehicle, while the attitude control motor serves to steer the crew module. The jettison motor’s function is to separate the LAS from the Orion capsule, in order to ensure parachutes deploy for a safe splashdown.
On Aug. 31, Aerojet Rocketdyne announced that it had successfully tested the LAS’s jettison motor for 1.5 seconds, the exact time required to separate the LAS from the crew module. This third development jettison motor was tested at the company’s facility in Rancho Cordova, Calif.
According to the subcontractor, this test alone generated 45,000 pounds of thrust, enough to lift two school buses off the ground. Both Aerojet Rocketdyne and Lockheed Martin reported that they gleaned important data from this test, such as “pressure, temperature, thrust, acceleration and strain measurements.”
This test is a game changer because the LAS’s jettison motor must function perfectly during each mission. Jim Paulsen, vice president of NASA programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne, related: “Reliability of the jettison motor is critical to the safety and execution of the mission. Unlike other launch abort system motors, the jettison motor operates every time. Astronaut safety and reliability of our exploration systems is paramount at Aerojet Rocketdyne. EM-1 is the first integrated flight of Orion and the new heavy lift Space Launch System rocket, and Aerojet Rocketdyne propulsion systems will be supporting the mission from liftoff to splashdown.”
Exploration Mission 1: Orion’s Next “Giant Leap”
The last test of the Orion crew module, EFT-1, was completed utilizing a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket in December 2014. But to reach the Moon and beyond, Orion will need to utilize something even more powerful than ULA’s beast of a heavy launcher.
Currently on track to launch in October 2018, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) will be the first integrated test of the Orion crew module, its ESA-built service module, and the mammoth Block 1 Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. While proving itself to be an “all out” test of these components together, the uncrewed mission will take the Orion capsule 40,000 miles beyond the Moon during a three-week period. Then, the thermal protection system of tiles and the heat shield will face the ultimate test, sustaining a high-energy reentry from deep space. If all goes as planned, EM-1 will further validate the Orion crew capsule, making human-helmed future trips to deep space destinations—including Mars—wholly reachable.
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