Orion assemblage on track for 2014 Launch

Article written: 23 Dec , 2012
Updated: 23 Dec , 2015

Image caption: Orion EFT-1 crew cabin construction ongoing inside the Structural Assembly Jig at the Operations and Checkout Building (O & C) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). This is the inaugural space-bound Orion vehicle due to blastoff from Florida in September 2014 atop a Delta 4 Heavy rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASA is thrusting forward and making steady progress toward launch of the first space-bound Orion crew capsule -designed to carry astronauts to deep space. The agency aims for a Florida blastoff of the uncrewed Exploration Flight Test-1 mission (EFT-1) in September 2014 – some 20 months from now – NASA officials told Universe Today.

I recently toured the Orion spacecraft up close during an exclusive follow-up visit to check the work in progress inside the cavernous manufacturing assembly facility in the Operations and Checkout Building (O & C) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Vehicle assemblage is run under the auspices of prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems Corporation.

A lot of hardware built by contractors and subcontractors from all across the U.S. is now arriving at KSC and being integrated with the EFT-1 crew module (CM), said Jules Schneider, Orion Project manager for Lockheed Martin at KSC, during an interview with Universe Today beside the spacecraft at KSC.

“Everyone is very excited to be working on the Orion. We have a lot of work to do. It’s a marathon not a sprint to build and test the vehicle,” Schneider explained to me.

My last inspection of the Orion was at the official KSC unveiling ceremony on 2 July 2012 (see story here). The welded, bare bones olive green colored Orion shell had just arrived at KSC from NASA’s Michoud facility in New Orleans. Since then, Lockheed and United Space Alliance (USA) technicians have made significant progress outfitting the craft.

Workers were busily installing avionics, wiring, instrumentation and electrical components as the crew module was clamped in place inside the Structural Assembly Jig during my follow-up tour. The Jig has multiple degrees of freedom to move the capsule and ease assembly work.

“Since July and to the end of 2012 our primary focus is finishing the structural assembly of the crew module,” said Schneider.

“Simultaneously the service module structural assembly is also ongoing. That includes all the mechanical assembly inside and out on the primary structure and all the secondary structure including the bracketry. We are putting in the windows and gussets, installing the forward bay structure leading to the crew tunnel, and the aft end CM to SM mechanism components. We are also installing secondary structures like mounting brackets for subsystem components like avionics boxes and thruster pods as parts roll in here.”

Image caption: Window and bracket installation on the Orion EFT-1 crew module at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer

“A major part of what we are doing right now is we are installing a lot of harnessing and test instrumentation including alot of strain gauges, accelerometers, thermocouples and other gauges to give us data, since that’s what this flight is all about – this is a test article for a test flight.

“There is a huge amount of electrical harnesses that have to be hooked up and installed and soldered to the different instruments. There is a lot of unique wiring for ground testing, flight testing and the harnesses that will be installed later along with the plumbing. We are still in a very early stage of assembly and it involves alot of very fine work,” Schneider elaborated. Ground test instrumentation and strain gauges are installed internally and externally to measure stress on the capsule.

Construction of the Orion service module is also moving along well inside the SM Assembly Jig at an adjacent work station. The SM engines will be mass simulators, not functional for the test flight.

Image caption: Orion EFT-1 crew cabin and full scale mural showing Orion Crew Module atop Servivce Module inside the O & C Building at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

The European Space Agency (ESA) has been assigned the task of building the fully functional SM to be launched in 2017 on NASA’s new SLS rocket on a test flight to the moon and back.

Although Orion’s construction is proceeding apace, there was a significant issue during recent proof pressure testing at the O & C when the vehicle sustained three cracks in the aft bulkhead of the lower half of the Orion pressure vessel.

“The cracks did not penetrate the pressure vessel skin, and the structure was holding pressure after the anomaly occurred,” Brandi Dean, a NASA Public Affairs Officer told me. “The failure occurred at 21.6 psi. Full proof is 23.7 psi.”

“A team composed of Lockheed Martin and NASA engineers have removed the components that sustained the cracks and are developing options for repair work. Portions of the cracked surface were removed and evaluated, letting the team eliminate problems such as material contamination, manufacturing issues and preexisting defects from the fault tree. The cracks are in three adjacent, radial ribs of this integrally machined, aluminum bulkhead,” Dean stated.

Image caption: NASA graphic of 3 cracks discovered during recent proof pressure testing. Credit: NASA

The repairs will be subjected to rigorous testing to confirm their efficacy as part of the previously scheduled EFT-1 test regimen.

A great deal of work is planned over the next few months including a parachute drop test just completed this week and more parachute tests in February 2013. The heat shield skin and its skeleton are being manufactured at a Lockheed facility in Denver, Colorado and shipped to KSC. They are due to be attached in January 2013 using a specialized tool.

“In March 2013, we’ll power up the crew module at Kennedy for the first time,” said Dean.

Orion will soar to space atop a mammoth Delta IV Heavy booster rocket from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Construction and assembly of the triple barreled Delta IV Heavy is the pacing item upon which the launch date hinges, NASA officials informed me.

Following the forced retirement of NASA’s space shuttles, the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy is now the most powerful booster in the US arsenal and heretofore has been used to launch classified military satellites. Other than a specialized payload fairing built for Orion, the rocket will be virtually identical to the one that boosted a super secret U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite to orbit on June 29, 2012 (see my launch story here).

Orion will fly in an unmanned configuration during the EFT-1 test flight and orbit the Earth two times – reaching an altitude of 3,600 miles which is 15 times farther than the International Space Station’s orbital position. The primary objective is to test the performance of Orion’s heat shield at the high speeds and searing temperatures generated during a return from deep space like those last experienced in the 1970’s by the Apollo moon landing astronauts.

The EFT-1 flight is not the end of the road for this Orion capsule.

“Following the EFT-1 flight, the Orion capsule will be refurbished and reflown for the high altitude abort test, according to the current plan which could change depending on many factors including the budget,” explained Schneider.

“NASA will keep trying to do ‘cool’ stuff”, Bill Gerstenmaier, the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Space Flight, told me.

Stay tuned – Everything regarding human and robotic spaceflight depends on NASA’s precarious budget outlook !

Ken Kremer

Image caption: Orion EFT-1 crew cabin assemblage inside the Structural Assembly Jig at the Operations and Checkout Building (O & C) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC); Jules Schneider, Orion Project Manager for Lockheed Martin and Ken Kremer. Credit: Ken Kremer

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32 Responses

  1. meekGee says

    The first manned flight of Orion is scheduled for 2020. It seems like Congress is fixated on keeping NASA in an alternate universe where time is almost at a standstill.

    Dragon will have flown 10s of times by then. Seriously – if there is a commercial way to get in and out of orbit, NASA should concentrate only on the deep-space part of the mission.

    • TerryG says

      Agreed. There are proposals for an Earth-Moon-L2 mission for Orion – if that qualifies as “deep-space”. Any further away and Orion might not be the answer. For example Orion is not suited for the 16 month manned round trip to Mars.

    • NASA’s “manned space program” is really a congressional district jobs program. Nearly 50 years after the Apollo moon landing, NASA is struggling to get back into LEO. Pathetic. Meanwhile pork efforts like NASA’s SLS have decimated funding for space science. Let SpaceX et. al. blaze the way.

    • Kawarthajon says

      And where is this thing supposed to go? There aren’t any real plans to go into space (i.e. no real missions to the Moon, Mars or an asteroid), other than plans that are gathering dust on bookshelves. What’s the point of building this thing without a real plan to get to a specific destination?

  2. Winski says

    Let’s all race back to 1965 !!!


    • Olaf2 says

      Except for the exterior form.

      Tell me what is similar to the Apollo design?

    • Chetan Chauhan says

      I would trust the 1965 design anytime over the late 1970’s designs the space shuttle was based on.
      Apollo , and Soyuz are both based on the “stick” design and both have wonderful safety records compared to the pretty poor record of the Space Shuttle. All the shuttle reminds me is the phrase – “If pigs could fly” , a text book example of how something that should cost 100mn per launch can baloon to a 2-3bn dollar per year monstrosity.

      • Winski says

        Let’s see.. the LAST time I looked at a calendar it was 2012 !!!! ALMOST 50 YEAR HAVE PASSED !!! GET YOUR HEAD OUTTA YOUR BACKSIDE AND INVENT SOMETHING FOR THE 21st CENTURY !!

      • Chetan Chauhan says

        The wheel was invented 5000 years back , yet the basic structure has remained the same for 5000 years. Yeah they make them out of rubber and steel now instead of wood , but the basic structure is still the same. Because it STILL WORKS great.
        So if I were you i’d just stop putting your foot into your mouth and not care as long as the damn thing works and puts people into Orbit. And your kind of thinking to make something “different” and “futuristic” is what led to the Space Shuttle.

      • Winski says

        Yup… Probably one of the most successful human space flight systems so far… It’s time to SKIP AHEAD TWO GENERATIONS…NOT BACK FOUR !!!

      • Chetan Chauhan says

        History will not be kind to the Space Shuttle.

        Apollo flew to the moon and back and was designed with safety in mind. And it did a very good job with no deaths despite one failure (Apollo 13). It is unbelievable how well designed it was that Apollo 13 astronauts survived.

        The Shuttle on the other hand was completely incapable of anything other than LEO , and even that it did very expensively. Designed to be “reusable” , calculations prove that it would have costs less to just make a new Apollo/Orion capsule every time you wanted to send someone to space. And it would have saved 14 precious lives at their prime.

        Informed opinion –


        If you consider the space shuttle a “step forward” from Apollo , I’d rather go back two generations to something that is actually a 1000% safer and costs less too.

      • kkt says

        Most unfair to the Shuttle. Apollo could go to the moon, and the Shuttle couldn’t, but the Shuttle could lift large payloads to orbit and return them gently to earth. While the Shuttle did not achieve the low costs that were hoped for, it did demonstrate that reusable spacecraft are possible and advance the state of the art in engines and many other ways.

        There’s no reason to say Apollo was a safer spacecraft than the shuttle. Apollo did have deaths, Grissom, White, and Chaffee. They were killed by design and manufacturing flaws in the Apollo spacecraft just as much as if they had been in space. Apollo lost three astronauts and came within an ace of losing the three in Apollo 13. If they had had 135 manned missions instead of 12, they would have lost more.

        Apollo had the benefit of working with a blank check from Congress. NASA no longer had that working on the Shuttle.

        Space travel is still experimental. It’s foolish to expect experiments to go exactly as planned. You learn more from the failures than you do from the successes.

      • Chetan Chauhan says

        Those 3 deaths you talk about happened on the ground during testing of the First Apollo capsule . Going by the same logic you would also include all the ground fatalities the Space Shuttle was responsible for.

        NASA actually fixed those problems and the later Apollo missions were proven to be safe . With the shuttle they just kept covering up the problems with more “Foam” .

        No one died in Space in the Apollo missions , even though the risks involved were magnitudes higher than the Shuttle missions. The astronauts and the Apollo modules were subject to cosmic rays away from Earth and proved their mettle. The Apollo 13 rocket was half blown to shreds for gods sake , and still the Apollo capsule was left untouched and safe.

        Russia’s Soyuz has been ferrying astroanuts back and forth for decades now using the similar “capsule” on top of the Rocket and it too has an admirable safety record.

      • kkt says

        In the Apollo 1 fire, the capsule was being used just as it was to be used in space, oxygen atmosphere, flaky electrical system, and all. The deaths weren’t the result of it being a test on earth, it was the result of the design and construction of the capsule. The problems were fixed, just like the O ring design of the Shuttle booster was fixed post-Challenger, just like post-Columbia shuttle flights included carefully viewing the outside of the shuttle, with another shuttle available for launch on short notice to rescue the crew if the first shuttle was too badly damaged for reentry. NASA did not just put on more foam and hope for the best.

        You should recognize that Apollo 13 made it back with an amazing amount of good luck, as well as skill and ability to improvise. That’s not an illustration of safe design.

        What ground fatalities was the Shuttle responsible for?

      • Chetan Chauhan says

        Apollo 13 had a good amount of luck involved , but with the Space Shuttle anything short of the hand of God couldn’t save the astronauts in case of (explosive) failures either with the rocket during Ascent , or external damage to the shuttle during re-entry. Apollo was designed with certain safeguards in mind (i.e modular systems with backups in case the main systems failed/blew up) , and they served the Apollo 13 astronauts well.

        As I said earlier , the Shuttle was inherently less safe than the proven capsule based approach that Apollo , Orion and Soyuz use even though it had at least a decade or two of experience with Apollo to fall back on.

        As for the ground fatalities for the Shuttle, below is the list –
        1981/3/19 – 3 deaths
        1981/5/5 – 1
        2001/7/8 – 1
        2001/10/1 – 1
        2011/3/14 – 1

        Total deaths on ground – 7

      • Olaf2 says

        The shuttle needed constant communication with ground control to operate it. It could only move in LEO. The operating costs are huge!

  3. Bill McLaughlin says

    Interesting that the first two test flights test the systems that would have saved astronauts
    in the two shuttle disasters….

    • delphinus100 says

      Except that the Shuttle design didn’t lend itself to rocket powered crew escape…and how would that have helped a returning vehicle like Columbia?

    • Bariman43 says

      Yes, let’s stick a little escape tower on the nose, that would surely have helped the astronauts escape from what is essentially a plane going through the atmosphere so fast they have to throttle the engines down to avoid falling apart.

  4. lcrowell says

    On the NPR/PRI affilicated radio I heard a “Big Picture Science” feature on the big bang. It had an interesting digression with somebody who taught literature. This man made the point that evolution and the big bang suffer from a deficit as a narrative. There are no agents involved, whether that be heroes and anti-heroes, protagonists and antagonists, gods or God and so forth. The picture is one of a universe with the immense period of time without people, the absence of divine agents and humans only appear towards the very end, with our history just a very recent cap off of that. The problem may simply be that as a story telling social species we tend not to be attracted to narratives that do not have agency involved.
    I think much the same happens with the future. People can’t imagine a future where human beings, actors or agents are not pushing forwards into empty regions of the universe. It is attractive, almost compelling, to look at science fiction ideas about humans colonizing planets and huge spaceships plying their way into new frontiers. A plausible future where our species has gone off the evolutionary game table of life is almost unfathomable to many people. So we keep insisting on the need for astronauts to be launched into space and for there to be this “vision thing” where we end up as a space faring civilization.
    Performing space science and putting humans in space are very different propositions. Putting humans in space does involve some idea that we can live and adapt to space. For that to happen there has to be some economic reason, and more to the point that reason has to materialize into some way that “man in space” in effect pays for itself. Putting astronauts in deep space habitats, such as the idea of the lunar L-point, or putting a lunar base up will not by themselves serve this purpose. As I see it the only logical step is with solar power satellites. That might propel more longer duration stays in space to deploy and maintain these assets. Maybe from there humans will push our future with some economic justification for doing so.
    I have some counter thoughts about this as well. The idea that we may end up putting Wal*Mart stores and the golden arches on Mars, along with our landfills and the general mess we tend to make does not always thrill me. We might be moving into space simply convert off-Earth resources into garbage. Maybe for the sake of the planets and some region of this universe it is best that we humans do not make a larger footprint out there.

  5. Tony Mach says

    The sad thing is: If there wasn’t SpaceX (with their rocket-powered “steamrollers” that will change the face of the space industry), the Americans would fly to space with Soyuz well into the next decade…

    • TerryG says

      At the risk of wandering off topic….The SpaceX Grasshopper’s latest hop (December 17th) is now up to forty metres. As Elon says, “There may be some craters along the way…” but you really get the idea they could transform the launch vehicle to market with a fully reusable rocket.

  6. Member
    Aqua4U says

    Thx for the update Ken! Now you’ve got me curious about how the Orion Module was fabricated… several cast members machined then heliarc (TIG) or plasma arc (PAW) welded together? Dang complex rigs, jigs and fixtures however you look at it… eh? Interesting that all the cracks were in the same general location (Backbone Panel 4)… any comments on the findings of the analysis of that prob. would be appreciated. Seems like Lockheed is being kinna tight lipped about that oopsy?

    • WaxyMary says


      The fab of most ‘space’ parts is little changed although the methods used are much improved. Welding dissimilar materials via the many techniques of stir-weld, friction-weld, ultrasonic-weld, TIG, PAW, MIG, or other exotic gases or even flushed vacuums — has opened the door to lighter and more resilient material choices such as layered metal deposition preparatory to heat assisted jointing of metals to non-metals. Many of these members need to be removable, keep in mind, and so too is the need to exchange, sometimes, one backbone for another since these capsules are intended for multiple setups and usages.

      None of these relatively new methods are currently ‘out-of-the-box-ready” or even able to draw upon prior art in these areas as most pressure vessels are designed to hold pressure outside, resist the inward progression of stress and other creeping failures just waiting to make your day worse.

      Creating a pressure vessel which can survive the stress of launch, maneuvering, docking, multi-month usage in extreme micro meteoric orbits, the pressure changes inherent with exposure to sun and shade and yet still works toward containment in a vacuum; and which can resist the initial heat, secondary plasma damage and multiple torques of re-entry — well, if it works well enough and looks pretty I say it is good to go.

      Most members were not cast but rather machined from the forged and rolled solid. Aluminum and Titanium alloys in Near Net Mass, Pressure, or Gravity Casting, could be dense enough of course but it is machining to mate-up and for further fabrication such as adding stress carrying and relieving ribs that might be the problem in this case. It is these ‘edge’ ribs which are suspect, I suspect.

      Those portions of the ribs look to be designed for holding against outside pressure rather than outside vacuum. I imagine they are there to assist in the integrity of the entire back plane surface along with the other parts of the backbone and adjoining members. The transverse ribs in this case are extreme load bearing members as well as attachment points for the ablative heat shield and SM ring. This means they need to transfer stresses to the SM ring, when present, and the capsule walls at all times. The cracks are stresses which are incorrectly transferred I would think. Stress cracks indicate the need for a super highway like route for major pressure transfer. This interior framework does not exist since the milled walls and back bones are unitized to obliviate that need. Sort of like a uni-body car chassis reduces the need for the car frame in most cases.

      Since the article says the full pressure test was not completed I assume the strain gauges in that area showed an abnormality during the test. With the inexpensive costs of the gauges, monitoring and storage of data points, and the over-all idea of this being a test article I hope they gauged all the ribs, walls, intersections, surface changes and the like with an eye toward getting more knowledge into the state of the art.

      Additionally, making many of the other materials we might wish to use in these missions suitable –for long duration deep space missions –requires a semblance of gravity and/or air currents as well as a more natural temperature gradient to be successfully integrated with humans and other fragile cargo.


  7. Prime says

    I.d be using anti-gravity techniques in space, instead of “Throwing rocks out of the back of the boat”, for propulsion/

  8. Member
    Aqua4U says

    Just went into the Lockheed Martin Orion webpage and saw where they are proposing to use the Orion capsule for a Hubble Space Telescope upgrade mission.

    I hadn’t heard about this… Is there actually funding to do that?

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