The Orion spacecraft cleared one of the final hurdles to its first launch when top managers from NASA and Lockheed Martin successfully completed a key review of the vehicle’s systems ahead of the looming Dec. 4 flight test.
Orion passed the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) on Thursday, Nov. 20, and officials announced that the spacecraft is “GO” for proceeding on the road to launch – and one day on to Mars!
The FRR is a rigorous assessment of the spacecraft, its systems, mission operations, and support functions needed to successfully complete Orion’s first voyage to space.
Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion and recently completed its fabrication in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center in September 2014.
Orion will lift off on a Delta IV Heavy rocket on its inaugural test flight to space on the uncrewed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission at 7:05 a.m. EST on December 4, 2014, from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket is the world’s most powerful rocket and the only booster sufficiently powerful to launch the 50,000 pound Orion EFT-1 spacecraft to orbit.
The rocket was transported to pad 37 in late September. Then, on Nov. 12, this path finding Orion spacecraft was itself rolled out to the launch pad and hoisted and bolted atop the Delta IV Heavy.
The critical December test flight will pave the way for the first human missions to deep space in more than four decades since NASA’s Apollo moon landing missions ended in 1972.
To learn more about the major events and goals happening during Orion’s EFT-1 mission be sure to check out NASA’s cool new set of infographics explaining the 8 key events in my story – here.
The two-orbit, four and a half hour Orion EFT-1 flight around Earth will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.
EFT-1 will test the rocket, second stage, jettison mechanisms, as well as avionics, attitude control, computers, and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft.
Then the spacecraft will carry out a high speed re-entry through the atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph and scorching temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit to test the heat shield, before splashing down for a parachute assisted landing in the Pacific Ocean.
Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle that will carry America’s astronauts beyond Earth on voyages venturing farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars, and other destinations in our Solar System.
Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage and he’ll be onsite at KSC in the days leading up to the historic launch on Dec. 4.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion and Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Lockheed Martin and NASA engineers are installing the largest heat shield ever built onto the Orion EFT-1 spacecraft’s crew module at the Kennedy Space Center. Liftoff is slated for late Fall 2014. Credit: Lockheed Martin
In a key milestone, technicians at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida have attached the world’s largest heat shield to a pathfinding version of NASA’s Orion crew capsule edging ever closer to its inaugural unmanned test flight later this Fall on a crucial mission dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1).
One of the primary goals of NASA’s eagerly anticipated Orion EFT-1 uncrewed test flight is to test the efficacy of the heat shield in protecting the vehicle – and future human astronauts – from excruciating temperatures reaching 4000 degrees Fahrenheit (2200 C) during scorching re-entry heating.
A trio of parachutes will then unfurl to slow Orion down for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle now under development to replace the now retired space shuttle. The state-of-the-art spacecraft will carry America’s astronauts on voyages venturing farther into deep space than ever before – past the Moon to Asteroids, Mars and Beyond!
“The Orion heat shield is the largest of its kind ever built. Its wider than the Apollo and Mars Science Lab heat shields,” Todd Sullivan told Universe Today. Sullivan is the heat shield senior manager at Lockheed Martin, Orion’s prime contractor.
The heat shield measures 16.5 feet (5 m) in diameter.
Lockheed Martin and NASA technicians mated the heat shield to the bottom of the capsule during assembly work inside the Operations and Checkout High Bay facility at KSC.
“Holes were drilled into the heat shield from the inside to the outside at the structural attached points at the underside of the crew module,” said Jules Schneider, Orion Project manager for Lockheed Martin at KSC, during a recent exclusive interview by Universe Today inside the Orion clean room at KSC.
“Then its opened up from the outside and bolted in place underneath. Closeout plugs made of Avcoat are then installed to close it up and seal the gaps,” Schneider explained.
The heat shield is constructed from a single seamless piece of Avcoat ablator, that was applied by engineers at Textron Defense System near Boston, Mass.
“They applied the Avcoat ablater material to the outside. That’s what protects the spacecraft from the heat of reentry,” Sullivan explained.
The ablative material will wear away as it heats up during the capsules atmospheric re-entry thereby preventing the 4000 degree F heat from being transferred to the rest of the capsule and saving it and the human crew from utter destruction.
The Delta IV Heavy is the only rocket with sufficient thrust to launch the Orion EFT-1 capsule and its attached upper stage to its intended orbit of 3600 miles altitude above Earth – about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.
At the conclusion of the two-orbit, four- hour EFT-1 flight, the detached Orion capsule plunges back and re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 MPH (32,000 kilometers per hour).
“That’s about 80% of the reentry speed experienced by the Apollo capsule after returning from the Apollo moon landing missions,” Scott Wilson, NASA’s Orion Manager of Production Operations at KSC, told me during an interview at KSC.
“The big reason to get to those high speeds during EFT-1 is to be able to test out the thermal protection system, and the heat shield is the biggest part of that.”
“Numerous sensors and instrumentation have been specially installed on the EFT-1 heat shield and the back shell tiles to collect measurements of things like temperatures, pressures and stresses during the extreme conditions of atmospheric reentry,” Wilson explained.
The heat shield arrived at KSC in December 2013 loaded inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft while I was onsite. Read my story – here.
The data gathered during the unmanned EFT-1 flight will aid in confirming. or refuting, design decisions and computer models as the program moves forward to the first flight atop NASA’s mammoth SLS booster in late 2017 on the EM-1 mission and more human crewed missions thereafter.
Recently, the EFT-1 launch was postponed three months from its long planned slot in mid-September to December 2014 when NASA was ordered to make way for the accelerated launch of recently declassified US Air Force Space Surveillance satellites that were given a higher priority.
The covert Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, or GSSAP, satellites were only unveiled in Feb. 2014 during a speech by General William Shelton, commander of the US Air Force Space Command.
Despite the EFT-1 launch postponement, Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana said technicians are pressing forward and continue to work around the clock at KSC in order to still be ready in time to launch by the original launch window that opens in mid- September 2014.
“The contractor teams are working to get the Orion spacecraft done on time for the December 2017 launch,” said Cabana.
“They are working seven days a week in the Operations and Checkout High Bay facility to get the vehicle ready to roll out for the EFT-1 mission and be mounted on top of the Delta IV Heavy.”
“I can assure you the Orion will be ready to go on time, as soon as we get our opportunity to launch that vehicle on its first flight test and that is pretty darn amazing.”
“Our plan is to have the Orion spacecraft ready because we want to get EFT-1 out so we can start getting the hardware in for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and start processing for that vehicle that will launch on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in 2017,” Cabana told me
Concurrently, new American-made private crewed spaceships are under development by SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada – with funding from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) – to restore US capability to ferry US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and back to Earth by late 2017.
Read my exclusive new interview with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden explaining the importance of getting Commercial Crew online – here.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Boeing, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Curiosity, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.
Ken Kremer Delta 4 Heavy rocket and super secret US spy satellite roar off Pad 37 on June 29, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA’s Orion EFT-1 capsule will blastoff atop a similar Delta 4 Heavy Booster in December 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com[/caption]
The International Space Station could potentially function far beyond its new extension to 2024. Perhaps out to 2050. The ISS as seen from the crew of STS-119. Credit: NASA
WALLOPS ISLAND, VA – Just days ago, the Obama Administration approved NASA’s request to extend the lifetime of the International Space Station (ISS) to at least 2024. Ultimately this will serve as a stepping stone to exciting deep space voyages in future decades.
“I think this is a tremendous announcement for us here in the space station world,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, at a press briefing on Jan. 8.
But there’s really “no reason to stop it there”, said Frank Culbertson, VP at Orbital Sciences and former NASA astronaut and shuttle commander, to Universe Today when I asked him for his response to NASA’s station extension announcement.
“In my opinion, if it were up to me, we would fly it [the station] to 2050!” Culbertson added with a smile. “Of course, Congress would have to agree to that.”
Gerstenmaier emphasized that the extension will allow both the research and business communities to plan for the longer term and future utilization, be innovative and realize a much greater return on their investments in scientific research and capital outlays.
“The station is really our stepping stone,” Robert Lightfoot, NASA Associate Administrator, told me at Wallops following Antares launch.
The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) – which is searching for elusive dark matter – was one of the key science experiments that Gerstenmaier cited as benefitting greatly from the ISS extension to 2024. The AMS is the largest research instrument on the ISS.
The extension will enable NASA, the academic community and commercial industry to plan much farther in the future and consider ideas not even possible if the station was de-orbited in 2020 according to the existing timetable.
Both the Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo freighter are private space vehicles developed and built by Orbital Sciences with seed money from NASA in a public-private partnership to keep the station stocked with essential supplies and research experiments and to foster commercial spaceflight.
So I asked Culbertson and Lightfoot to elaborate on the benefits of the ISS extension to NASA, scientific researchers and commercial company’s like Orbital Sciences.
“First I think it’s fantastic that the Administration has committed to extending the station, said Culbertson. “They have to work with the ISS partners and there is a lot to be done yet. It’s a move in the right direction.”
“There is really no reason to stop operations on the space station until it is completely no longer usable. And I think it will be usable for a very long time because it is very built and very well maintained.”
“If it were up to me, we would fly it to 2050!”
“NASA and the engineers understand the station very well. I think they are operating it superbly.”
“The best thing about the station is it’s now a research center. And it is really starting to ramp up. It’s not there yet. But it is now finished [the assembly] as a station and a laboratory.”
“The research capability is just starting to move in the right direction.”
The Cygnus Orbital 1 cargo vehicle launched on Jan. 9 was loaded with approximately 2,780 pounds/1,261 kilograms of cargo for the ISS crew for NASA including vital science experiments, computer supplies, spacewalk tools, food, water, clothing and experimental hardware.
The research investigations alone accounted for over 1/3 of the total cargo mass. It included a batch of 23 student designed experiments representing over 8700 students sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE).
“So extending it [ISS] gives not only commercial companies but also researchers the idea that ‘Yes I can do long term research on the station because it will be there for another 10 years. And I can get some significant data.”
“I think that’s really important for them [the researchers] to understand, that it will be backed for that long time and that they won’t be cut off short in the middle of preparing an experiment or flying it.”
“So I think that first of all it demonstrates the commitment of the government to continue with NASA. But also it presents a number of opportunities for a number of people.”
What does the ISS extension mean for Orbital?
The purpose for NASA and Orbital Sciences in building Antares and Cygnus was to restore America’s ability to launch cargo to the ISS – following the shutdown of NASA’s space shuttles – by using commercial companies and their business know how to thereby significantly reduce the cost of launching cargo to low Earth orbit.
“As far as what it [the ISS extension] means for Orbital and other commercial companies – Yes, it does allow us to plan long term for what we might be able to do in providing a service for NASA in the future,” Culbertson replied.
“It also gives us the chance to be innovative and maybe invest in some improvements in how we can do this [cargo service] – to make it more cost effective, more efficient, turnaround time quicker, go more often, go a lot more often!”
“So it allows us the chance to think long term and make sure we can get a return on our investment.”
What does the ISS extension mean for NASA?
“The station is really our stepping stone,” Robert Lightfoot, NASA Associate Administrator, told Universe Today. “If you use that analogy of stepping stones and the next stone. We need to use this stone to know what the next stone looks like. So we can get ready. Whether that’s research or whether that things about the human body. You don’t want to jump off that platform before you are ready.”
“We are learning every day how to live and operate in space. Fortunately on the ISS we are close to home. So if something comes up we can get [the astronauts] home.”
The ISS extension is also the pathway to future exciting journey’s beyond Earth and into deep space, Culbertson and Lightfoot told Universe Today.
“It actually also presents a business opportunity that can be expanded not just to the station but to other uses in spaceflight, such as exploration to Asteroids, Mars and wherever we are going,” said Culbertson.
And we hope it will extend to other civilian uses in space also. Maybe other stations in space will follow this one and we’ll be able to participate in that.”
Lightfoot described the benefits for astronaut crews.
“The further out we go, the more we need to know about how to operate in space, what kind of protection we need, what kind of research we need for the astronauts,” said Lightfoot.
“Orbital is putting systems up there that allow us to test more and more. Get more time. Because when we get further away, we can’t get home as quick. So those are the kinds of things we can do.
“So with this extension I can make those investments as an Agency. And not just us, but also our academic research partners, our industry partners, and the launch market too is part of this.”
He emphasized the benefits for students, like those who flew experiments on Cygnus, and how that would inspire the next generation of explorers!
“You saw the excitement we had today with the students at the viewing area. For example with those little cubesats, 4 inches by 4 inches, that they worked on, and got launched today!”
“That’s pretty cool! And that’s exactly what we need to be doing!
“So eventually they can take our jobs. And as long as they know that station will be there for awhile, the extension gives them the chance to get the training and learning and do the research we need to take people further out in space.”
“The station is the stepping stone.”
“And it really is important to have this station extension,” Lightfoot explained to me.
The Jan. 9 launch of the Orbital-1 mission is the first of eight operational Antares/Cygnus flights to the space station scheduled through 2016 by Orbital Sciences under its $1.9 Billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg of cargo to orbit.
Orbital Sciences and SpaceX – NASA’s other cargo provider – will compete for follow on ISS cargo delivery contracts.
The next Antares/Cygnus flight is slated for about May 1 from NASA Wallops.
In an upcoming story, I’ll describe Orbital Sciences’ plans to upgrade both Antares and Cygnus to meet the challenges of the ISS today and tomorrow.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars and more news.