Astronauts

NASA’s Orion EM-1 Crew Module Passes Critical Pressure Tests

Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians prepare the Orion pressure vessel for a series of tests inside the proof pressure cell in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The next Orion crew module in line to launch to space on NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) has passed a critical series of proof pressure tests which confirm the effectiveness of the welds holding the spacecraft structure together.

Any leaks occurring in flight could threaten the astronauts lives.

Engineers and technicians conducted the pressure tests on the Orion EM-1 pressure vessel, which was welded together at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and then shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida just 3 months ago.

The pressure vessel is the structural backbone for the vehicles that will launch American astronauts to deep space destinations.

“This is the first mission where the Orion spacecraft will be integrated with the large Space Launch System rocket. Orion is the vehicle that’s going to take astronauts to deep space,” NASA Orion program manager Scott Wilson told Universe Today.

“The tests confirmed that the weld points of the underlying structure will contain and protect astronauts during the launch, in-space, re-entry and landing phases on the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), when the spacecraft performs its first uncrewed test flight atop the Space Launch System rocket,” according to a NASA statement.

After flying to KSC on Feb 1, 2016 inside NASA’s unique Super Guppy aircraft, this “new and improved” Orion EM-1 pressure vessel was moved to the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building for final assembly by prime contractor Lockheed Martin into a flight worthy vehicle.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Since then, technicians have worked to meticulously attach hundreds of strain gauges to the interior and exterior surfaces of the vehicle to prepare for the pressure tests.

The strain gauges provide real time data to the analysts monitoring the changes during the pressurization.

Orion was moved to a test stand inside the proof pressure cell high bay and locked inside behind large doors.

Lockheed Martin engineers then incrementally increased the pressure in the proof testing cell in a series of steps over two days. They carefully monitored the results along the way and how the spacecraft reacted to the stresses induced by the pressure increases.

The maximum pressure reached was 1.25 times normal atmospheric pressure – which exceeds the maximum pressure it is expected to encounter on orbit.

“We are very pleased with the performance of the spacecraft during proof pressure testing,” said Scott Wilson, NASA manager of production operations for the Orion Program.

“The successful completion of this test represents another major step forward in our march toward completing the EM-1 spacecraft, and ultimately, our crewed missions to deep space.”

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

With the pressure testing satisfactorily completed, technicians will move Orion back to birdcage assembly stand for the “intricate work of attaching hundreds of brackets to the vessel’s exterior to hold the tubing for the vehicle’s hydraulics and other systems.”

To prepare for launch in 2018, engineers and technicians from NASA and prime contractor Lockheed Martin will spend the next two years meticulously installing all the systems amounting to over 100,000 components and gear required for flight.

This particular ‘Lunar Orion’ crew module is intended for blastoff to the Moon in 2018 on NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) atop the agency’s mammoth new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, simultaneously under development. The pressurized crew module serves as the living quarters for the astronauts comprising up to four crew members.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

EM-1 itself is a ‘proving ground’ mission that will fly an unmanned Orion thousands of miles beyond the Moon, further than any human capable vehicle, and back to Earth, over the course of a three-week mission.

The 2018 launch of NASA’s Orion on the unpiloted EM-1 mission counts as the first joint flight of SLS and Orion, and the first flight of a human rated spacecraft to deep space since the Apollo Moon landing era ended more than 4 decades ago.

Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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