3 Welds to Go for 1st Orion Pathfinder Vehicle

Article written: 30 Mar , 2010
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

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Just three crucial welds remain to complete the structural assembly of the very first pathfinder Orion manned capsule – the Crew Module – known as the Ground Test Article (GTA) at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

The GTA is the first full-sized, flight-like test article for Orion. The Orion test capsule is being built by Lockheed Martin at Michoud as you read these words, even as President Obama seeks to completely terminate Project Constellation and Orion in his new NASA Budget proposal for 2011.

Yes, America’s Orion Crew Module program really is that close to achieving this key assembly milestone on the road to a US human spaceflight replacement and successor to the soon to be retired Space Shuttle. That fact is quite evident in the new NASA photos I obtained especially for this story. The GTA functions as a production pathfinder to validate production processes and tools for the actual human rated flight vehicle to follow.

Lockheed expects to complete the close out advanced technology welds for the GTA by May 2010 according to senior Lockheed officials I contacted. Structural proof testing of the Orion GTA vehicle will commence shortly thereafter.

Beyond that, John Karas, the Lockheed VP for Human Spaceflight told me in an interview that “Orion can be ready for crewed flights to low Earth orbit as early as 2013”.

Meanwhile, in the face of a rising chorus of harsh bipartisan Congressional criticism of the cancellation of Project Constellation and America’s Orion Crew Vehicle, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden continues to insist at multiple venues that, “There is no Plan B for Space Exploration. I strongly support the priorities and the direction for NASA that the President has put forward. I did not ask anybody for an alternative to the President’s plan and budget”.

The headline photo and others below illustrate the advanced status of the three major segments. The upper and lower module segments are to be robotically welded together by May 2010 using friction stir welding to create the structural framework of the first Orion pathfinder.

Orion Crew Module Aft Assembly in the 5505 weld fixture. The 5 meter diameter Aft Assembly weighs 1,885 lbs. Credit: NASA


At the moment, Lockheed is pressing forward with the Orion capsule utilizing the Congressionally approved NASA funding still available in the current fiscal budget as well as hundreds of millions more dollars committed by Lockheed and its partners, Karas said to me. “Over 4000 people are working on the Orion Project. Those jobs are at risk.”

Soon, the Orion and Constellation contractors will face tough decisions on whether to continue with testing and development of new science and technology breakthroughs … or begin massive personnel layoffs and abandon the wide ranging work in progress in order to preserve the remaining funds for shutdown activities.

“All work on Orion is proceeding according to the current contract schedule,” said Lockheed spokesman Kevin Barre.

The three major components of the Orion Crew Module GTA to be mated together are comprised of the Forward Cone Assembly, the Aft Assembly and the Crew Module Forward Bay Assembly and Tunnel. “These structural elements comprising the Orion GTA have undergone the meticulous application of strain gauges in preparation for loads and development testing”, says Barre. Hundreds of gauges have been placed in various positions to measure the overall vehicle strain during GTA testing.

“Inside the GTA is a backbone which resembles a stringer on a boat. That backbone will be installed in April before initial testing of the GTA begins at Michoud in May,” Barre amplified.

Orion Crew Module Tunnel and Forward Bulkhead comprise the Forward Assembly, minus the outer thermal protection system. The tunnel is to be mated to the top of the Cone Assembly. Astronauts will enter the Space Station through the tunnel after docking. The Forward Assembly and Tunnel weighs 370 lbs. Credit: NASA

After the testing for structural integrity, the crew module will be outfitted with the thermal protection systems and internal components necessary for subsequent static vibration, acoustics and water landing loads testing in flight-like environments. Environmental support components – similar in mass and volume to the flight articles – will also be installed. These internal components are being built both at Michoud and at other contractor work sites around the country. The testing results will be used to correlate sizing models for all subsystems on the vehicle and finalize the design.

Lockheed achieved another key technology milestone when the fabrication of the Orion composite heat shield was completed in February 2010. The 5 meter (16.4 ft) diameter Orion heat shield is the world’s largest heat shield structure ever built, and larger in size than the Mars Science Lab (MSL) and Apollo heat shields. It will be attached to the GTA in June 2010 upon completion of acceptance testing.

The cutting edge heat shield is critical to the protection of the spacecraft and crew from the extreme temperatures experienced during re-entry. See photo below of the heat shield – which seems to hover like a flying saucer – after its removal from the mold where it was fabricated in Denver.

The Orion composite heat shield structure appears to hover above its layup mold during removal. It is the world’s largest heat shield ever built and is 5 meters in diameter. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Final testing of the Orion Ground Test Article at Michoud is set to begin in the September 2010 timeframe.

Work has not yet begun on the service module which supports the GTA with life support supplies.

Orion is a frustum shaped vehicle, dubbed “Apollo on Steroids” by the previous NASA Administrator Mike Griffin due to its obvious similarity to the Apollo Command Module. At a diameter of 5 meters and measuring 3.3 meters tall, Orion would have 2.5 times the interior volume of Apollo.

Of course the continuation of all this high technology work and the fate of thousands of US jobs associated with it, is threatened by President Obama’s decision to cancel Orion at this advanced stage of development after $9 Billion has already been spent by NASA and the taxpayers on Project Constellation since 2004. At least another $2.5 Billion will be required just to shut down the program. It’s quite possible that even more money will be required as contractors assess their full shutdown costs.

The Constellation program comprises the Orion Crew Vehicle and the Ares 1 and Ares 5 booster rockets designed to return humans to the Moon, Mars and Beyond for the first time since the Apollo program ended in 1972.

Obama’s budget calls instead for starting over with the development of a new human spaceflight capsule by relying on commercial providers to develop ‘space taxis’ to ferry US astronauts into low Earth orbit and the International Space Station. After the Space Shuttle is retired following its final flight later this year, the US will have no domestic manned vehicles to propel people into space and will instead have to purchase astronauts seats on board the Russian Soyuz capsule for some $50 million apiece until a commercial US ‘space taxi’ is ready for launch.

Related stories by Ken Kremer

Orion can Launch Safely in 2013 says Lockheed

SpaceX Activates Station Communications System for Future Dragon Dockings

Successful Engine Test Firing for SpaceX Inaugural Falcon 9

Obama Made Mistake Cancelling NASAs Constellation; Sen. Bill Nelson

ISS Change of Command as Russian American Crew readies Earth return

NASA manager says Shuttle Extension Possible; Key Issue Is Money not Safety

What Would NASA Do with an Added Shuttle Flight?


29 Responses

  1. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    Really great propaganda piece.

    I would wait to after Obama’s 14th April announcements before I’d “putting the horse before the cart” and speculate on NASa’s future. I.e. Couldn’t private industry take over and complete the Constellation program?

    Clearly much of the materials photographed here will more likely be soon heading to some space museum or to the proverbial metal recyclable scrapheap.

    As the American economy is in such a disastrous state, Obama has not other options but to reverse the budget deficit. Is it better for the America to default on its loans, punishing every American, or do you dig yourself out of the debt and await a better time to chase what is nothing more than unaffordable dreams?

    As for Lockheed, they are sure hedging their bets, aren’t they!

    Fools would only be suckered into melodramatic pleas as stated in stories like this one!

  2. weeasle says

    I agree with most of what the Hon. SB Crumb says above… Just would like to add that Ares I/V and Constellation’s Launchers are bloody SCARY. The main constituents of the hypergolic fuel in the SRBs of these rockets (and also the Shuttle) are: Aluminum perchlorate and isoprene rubber. Both of these chemicals are HIGHLY TOXIC to humans and animals… In fact I have links to Nasa documents showing the fuel is over 69% (by vol.) perchlorates – checkout the wikipedia entry on perchlorates – eye opening stuff – the new DDT of this century!! This crap is in most municipal drinking water in the USA – A recent CDC study in the USA found perchlorates in the umbilical chord blood of most newborn infants and even mentioned the source of contamination as rocket fuel!! – Also youtube PEPCON disaster to watch a huge explosion of shuttle solid fuel near Las Vegas.. Then spare a thought for the poor sods in Vegas drinking municipal water… Also the people and wildlife around Cape Kanaveral in Florida where Shuttles have been buring millions of tons of this crap for decades … Truly unbelievable..

  3. Silenus says

    “Couldn’t private industry take over and complete the Constellation program?”

    Why should they? There’s no commercial interest in the moon. There’s nothing there worth commercial exploitation. It’s not them making up stories about mining He-3 and beaming energy to earth, they know better…

  4. Silenus says

    Oops, didn’t want to restart the discussion on arguments to return to the moon.
    Was reading UT from top to bottom, didn’t see the discussion in the previous post.

  5. Olaf says

    @HLBC
    “As the American economy is in such a disastrous state, Obama has not other options but to reverse the budget deficit.”

    So Obama is going to fix this by firing thousands of NASA workers and then send the money to Russia?

    How about keep the space program and reduce the money spent on the illegal war?

  6. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    Yes, but NASA isn’t going to the grave is it? (I mean the budget increased) Constellation is being cancelled, and those associated with it may lose their jobs, but the choice is reverse the budget deficit or the whole country could fall into the proverbial mire. Presently is a real economical hard choice and was caused by rather poor management of the economy in the pas and even poor choices in policy directions. Most Americans just seem to be having trouble facing it.
    Hard choices sometimes need sacrifices to make things better again. This doesn’t mean the dream has died. It just means the ball game has to be postponed for a while. It is just sensible and prudent action.

  7. TerryG says

    [After the Space Shuttle is retired following its final flight later this year, the US will have no domestic manned vehicles to propel people into space and will instead have to purchase astronauts seats on board the Russian Soyuz capsule for some $50 million apiece until a commercial US ‘space taxi’ is ready for launch.]

    During the thirty two months following the hull loss of Challenger (STS-51L 1986 Jan 28th) and twenty nine months following the hull loss of Columbia (STS-107 2003 Feb 1st), all remaining Shuttles were grounded. Meantime, the Russian Space Agency coped brilliantly supplying cargo and crew, including US astronauts to the ISS.

    Dr Kremer, relax, the Russians are reliable and our friends and this is a good thing.

    Further, HSBC makes many excellent points.

    Despite Dr Kremer’s less than impartial use of Universe Today as a soap box to revive the defunct Constellation program, there is no ground swell of public support for that out come as there was for the say the last HST servicing mission.

    Certainly, Lockheed Martin contractors are capable of doing great work (e.g. SR-71, F-35, F-22 etc). Lets congratulate them and hope they get a mission that actually makes sense after April 14th.

  8. Wolter says

    “Over 4000 people are working on the Orion Project. Those jobs are at risk.”

    4000 people for only the capsule, did n’t Elon Musk build an entire rocket with less then a 1000 men?

  9. Member
    Aqua says

    Could the heat shield be adapted to another mission? Say aerobraking at Mars? or Titan?

    Solid rockets have proven reliable if the seals don’t leak, but weeasel has a point about the contamination by aluminum perchlorate at high altitudes… not good~

    THINK about what Scaled Composites is doing…i.e. an AIR breathing mothership plane climbs to altitude with an orbiter mounted below and releases it at 50-60K ft. The orbiter fires it first stage rocket to hypersonic speeds. A SCRAM jet engine fires up and continues the acceleration curve to the top of the atmosphere. The SCRAM jet engine shuts down then reconfigures itself into a EMP driven plasma jet engine and takes the orbiter to LEO or beyond…

  10. Olaf says

    Wolter, you are forgetting the cleaning ladies, the truck drivers, the people that provided and grow food, the people that popuplated the shops. They might not be NASA people but they all lose their jobs…

    Even if there is mismanagment, the money still stayed in the US so the money will end up by some call girl, some expensive restaurant, but is kept in the US economy.

  11. Olaf says

    TerryG

    “Dr Kremer, relax, the Russians are reliable and our friends and this is a good thing.”

    That is a big gamble. If their next president is a madman then Russia could be at war. Or maybe some civil war starts in Russia,… Or Terrorist explode a nuclear bomb in Moscow and it turns out to be US detonators. Or you get a October revolution.

    Or Palin might start a nuclear war with Russia when she gets elected next time believing that is the messangers of the Mayans and her job is to end this world…

    NEVER assume any country to be your friend. It only takes a couple of months afte a madman like hitler get into power.

  12. Member
    Aqua says

    The coolest thing the Pres. could do right now would be to announce a scientific breakthrough from the ISS…

  13. Wolter says

    @Olaf, I would like to see the calculations that 4000 would lose their jobs over canceling Orion.
    When you look at the entire Constellation project then perhaps. But not on the Capsule alone.

    And besides, the budget for nasa goes up, and most of that still will be spend within the USA and thus providing for jobs.

  14. Aodhhan says

    You think Obama is worrying about reversing the deficit?? He has increased spending at a rate 5 times that of the Bush administration. Democrats don’t look at slowing down the deficit, they look at funding their little pet projects at home (pork/earmarks), and other crazy projects which tend to cost jobs, not create them…. oh yes, and hiring companies for their projects at increased rates, because they helped fund their elections.

    NASA Jobs going away: A good deal of them which will be lost is in southern Louisianna… the one place in the USA which doesn’t need more unemployment.
    Also… there are jobs outside NASA which will be lost. Think of all the logistical operations which support NASA… gone! Don’t forget the local economies the NASA jobs support, and those other economies which are supported by the NASA supporters! More devistation. Obama can’t see more than 2 steps beyond anything… unless it is one of his rediculous programs.
    Health care… We need it.. Problem is, his program is rediculous. We don’t get healthcare for 4 million people, by screwing up the healthcare of 700 million. Then they pay for it by taxing tanning salons, medical equipment manufacturers…etc. STUPID. Get ready for fast food tax, increased auto taxes, soda pop tax, etc. Anything which some government idiot believes is unhealthy will likely be taxed.

    Back to NASA…Not to mention the technology which will be lost. A lot of the technology you use everyday was likely a result of NASA… and manned space projects…. Many which aren’t really used for space, but that developing space products brought to life other technolgy.

    Private industry is years away from putting man into space. There is a big difference between putting a 1200kg box into space and upping the cargo to 4000kg worth of equipment plus a very live crew.

  15. Olaf says

    @Wolter
    Have you considered that you create a lot of work for other people by working?

    You put people that makes food, cleans the office, repair stuff, IT jobs, postal service, transport sevice because you do your job. If you lose your job and do not get replaced then all these people have less work so probably getting fired too. And I am not talking the people that diliver the paper, the office material the stuff they order for the Orion capsule, the electronics,….

    There are no 1000 engineers working directly on the capsule, but indirectly there night be a 1000 people that will work. Softrware developers do build the software, electronics engineer to build the elecronics, administration that keeps track of ordering the parts and payment. External companies that ship the computers and parts of the Orion capsule. I mean the orion capsule gives work to far more people you would expect.

    @Wolter
    “And besides, the budget for nasa goes up, and most of that still will be spend within the USA and thus providing for jobs.”

    Again these are politicians! The would promise anything an nothing happens. Don’t stare blind at those promises, look at what they do, not what they say. It is very realistic that no money gets payd the first 3 years.

  16. Olaf says

    The other thing is lost patents. You outsource it to the Russians. This means that the Russians have the money to do research on new rocket technology.
    This also means that they will get tons of new patents so next time you get this fire proof firing pan, you might pay for the patent because it was invented as a byproduct of the heat shield of the space craft.

  17. Olaf says

    Sorry for the misspelling, my dyslexia is very bad today.

  18. Olaf says

    For the record I never liked Ares I. Ugly and very polluting rocket.

  19. Andy F says

    Without more poliical will/support for space, I agree with the Obama plan for NASA…there is no other option.

    What a huge waste of money Constellation turned out to be! Think of the unmanned science probes to Mars, Europa and beyond that money could have bought!

  20. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    “Problem is, his program is ridiculous. We don’t get healthcare for 4 million people, by screwing up the healthcare of 700 million.”

    Eh? 700 million. The population of the US is 307 million (2009) – about one quarter that of China!

  21. Maxwell says

    That’s just what we need, more data!
    …Its nice and all, but the general public is more interested in the expansion of humanities domain than it is in more textbook filler.
    So we either explain what the future of manned spaceflight is, or why we spend billions a year on making desktop wallpapers.

    I think the underlying problem is business minded folks right now don’t have much interest in human spaceflight or exploration. A commercial entity is more likely to buy or copy a capable military rocket system than it is to start from scratch on its own thing.
    NASA would be better served by pushing forward on its own ships then trying to sell the design rights.

  22. Aodhhan says

    Crumb….First of all…if that is all I was counting, youre wrong. That is from census data which is rather old (altho, you’re fantastic at using old information). Second, You aren’t counting illegals, 3rd you aren’t counting citizens outside the country along with all the US territories, and 4th you wouldn’t have the wisdom to know about the millions of others in other countries who we fit the bill for.

  23. Aodhhan says

    Crumb…
    most of all wank… I was WAGing the number to make a point, but at least I was able to show your fast mouth and slow brain to quit using google for your education, because it doesn’t give you the FULL STORY.

  24. Uncle Fred says

    I’ve had a chance to read though the whole health care bill and from my perspective (North of the border) it’s not all that leftist or radical. It actually pretty mild fare. Certainly it’s not a perfect bill by any means, – and I am no medical expert – but it’s not really worth getting too worked up about.

    Taxes for fast food would be a smart idea. A great way to increase revenue while working to prod consumers in the right direction health wise. It would be very much like the high taxes we have on cigarettes. It’s not a matter of freedom of consumer choice.Here in Canada we all have to foot the bill medically for those who make unhealthy lifestyle choices. Therefore we are all responsible as a society to ensure we do everything possible to not be a burden on the system. Making healthy lifestyle choices is a responsibility. Therefore, I am very much for high taxes on products that are proven to have an overall adverse effect on an individual’s health. If you want to live a risky lifestyle that’s your choice, but know that you will be paying more into the system as an insurance policy in case you become sickly.

    Some may disagree, but I feel this is only fair for those who stay healthy. Everyone of course gets treatment regardless, but those who chose poor foods would pay more.

  25. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    @ Aodhhan

    “I was WAGing the number to make a point”

    What?
    Your all bullying, posturing and bluff, but the population is still officially 307 million! LOL.
    Clearly you don’t know what the population of America was!
    All you have done is make your self look rather silly, by hey. That’s OK.

    I knew it was about 300 million. Actually I double checked with the US Census Bureau and not Google.
    It give the US population as 307,006,550 as of the first of July 2009.

    So why the deliberate deception?

    (IMO it was probably you boosting the numbers to make you feel more secure “Bigger than Texas” syndrome.)

  26. Uncle Fred says

    Texas is having it’s own educational related issues. Recently, the Texas state school board voted in favor of revising the state text books in order to include Creationism arguments.

    So much for the separation of church and state.

  27. Aodhhan says

    Brain the size of a CRUMB…

    Get over yourself….obviously I was WAGING…or I would be as proficient as you at cut and pasting information.

    I guess from now on.. whenever you decide to pop out formulas, I’ll have you plug in the numbers to show you actually know what you are talking about. It would shock most of us if you could provide 2 variable solution.

  28. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    Do you mean waging or wagging?

    I can’t recall divvying in many equations at all. its a blog site, not a formal discuss.

  29. Boggs says

    @Hon

    “I would wait to after Obama’s 14th April announcements before I’d “putting the horse before the cart” and speculate on NASa’s future. I.e. Couldn’t private industry take over and complete the Constellation program?”

    Doubtful. The design of constellation is owned by NASA and has been largely payed for by tax dollars. The contractual and legal problems associated with transferring that technology to a private company wouldn’t be worth it. Certainly some of the technology could be handed off by NASA (and indeed it already has), but the wholesale transfer of entire spacecraft designs is a different matter.

    Furthermore, commercial industry has no interest in the stated goals of constellation, nor should they. Commercial providers spread costs amongst their clients to their prices low. But there is no market for space exploration outside of NASA. If NASA is the only customer, then they will bear the full weight of the cost. If commercial industry picked up the pieces of constellation it would amount to simply handing the program to a different contractor. Different dog and pony, same song and dance.

    “Clearly much of the materials photographed here will more likely be soon heading to some space museum or to the proverbial metal recyclable scrapheap.”

    Definitely a possibility. Though I think it would be a terrible waste.

    “As the American economy is in such a disastrous state, Obama has not other options but to reverse the budget deficit. Is it better for the America to default on its loans, punishing every American, or do you dig yourself out of the debt and await a better time to chase what is nothing more than unaffordable dreams?”

    Straw man. As has been stated in the comments (by you, no less), NASA’s budget has been increased. It is not concern over national debt that is driving this decision. The administration simply wishes to move in a different direction. Whether or not that direction is better is up for debate.

    “As for Lockheed, they are sure hedging their bets, aren’t they!”

    Ridiculous. Lockheed is under contract to execute to their 2010 budget or face the legal consequences. Of course they won’t cut their losses, since they have no losses to cut. NASA is paying for this capsule, and if the program ends, NASA will pay Lockheed to shut it down.

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