NASA’s First Orion Crew Module Arrives Safely Back at Kennedy Space Center

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – After a history making journey of more than 66,000 miles through space, ocean splash down and over 2700 mile cross country journey through the back woods of America, NASA’s pathfinding Orion crew capsule has returned to its home base at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“The Orion mission was a spectacular success,” said Jules Schneider, Lockheed Martin Program manager for Orion at KSC, during a homecoming event attended by space journalists including Universe Today on Friday, Dec. 19, 2014.

“We achieved 85 of 87 test objectives,” noted Schneider. “Only an up righting air bag did not deploy fully after splashdown. And we are looking into that. Otherwise the mission went extremely well.”

Orion’s early homecoming was unexpected and a pleasant surprise since it hadn’t been expected until next week just prior to Christmas.

Orion flew on its two orbit, 4.5 hour flight maiden test flight on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission that started NASA’s long road to send astronauts beyond Earth and eventually to Mars in the 2030s.

The media were able to see the entire Orion capsule from top to bottom, including the exposed, blackened and heat scorched heat shield which had to protect the vehicle from fiery reentry temperatures exceeding 4000 F (2200 C).

 Top view of NASA’s maiden Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com

Top view of NASA’s maiden Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion is being stored for now inside the Launch Abort System Facility (LASF)

“The heat shield worked extremely well and did its job,” Schneider told Universe Today.

Engineers took three samples from the 16.5 foot diameter heat shield and they are in for analysis.

“I don’t know if you can tell, we’ve actually taken a few core samples off the heat shield already and we’re looking at those,” said Schneider. “We will be removing the heat shield from this vehicle later in February so we will get an ever better look at it.”

One of the main objectives was to test the heat shield during the high speed atmospheric plummet of about 20000 mph (32000 kph) that reached approximately 85% of what astronauts will experience during a return from future voyages to Mars and Asteroids in the next decade and beyond.

“All of Orion’s system performed very well,” Schneider told me in an interview beside Orion.

“And the capsule used only about 90 pounds of its about 300 pounds of hydrazine propellant stored on board.”

“All of the separation events went beautifully and basically required virtually no maneuvering fuel to control the attitude of the capsule. The expected usage was perhaps about 150 pounds.”

“Therefore there is a lot more hydrazine fuel on board than we expected. And we had to be cautious in transporting Orion across the country.”

Up close view of three core samples taken from the heat shield of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Up close view of three core samples taken from the heat shield of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Lockheed Martin is the Orion prime contractor.

The Orion arrived module arrived back at KSC, Thursday afternoon after being hauled across our country mostly on back country roads, and with no publicity or fanfare, on an unmarked flat bed truck to minimize interaction with the public.

“It was like a black ops operation,” said one of the team members responsible to safely transporting Orion from Naval Base San Diego to KSC.

NASA obtained special permits to move Orion from all the states travelled between California and Florida.

“We didn’t want any publicity because the capsule was still loaded with residual toxic chemicals like ammonia and hydrazine.” These were used to power and fuel the capsule.”

Orion’s test flight began with a flawless launch on Dec. 5 as it roared to orbit atop the fiery fury of a 242 foot tall United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket – the world’s most powerful booster – at 7:05 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The unpiloted test flight of Orion on the EFT-1 mission ignited NASA’s roadmap to send Humans to Mars by the 2030s by carrying the capsule farther away from Earth than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has traveled in more than four decades.

Humans have not ventured beyond low Earth orbit since the launch of Apollo 17 on NASA’s final moon landing mission on Dec. 7, 1972.

Watch for more details and photos later.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage from onsite at the Kennedy Space Center about the historic launch on Dec. 5.

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

Ken Kremer

Jules Schneider, Lockheed Martin Program manager for Orion at KSC, and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss Orion during arrival event at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Jules Schneider, Lockheed Martin Program manager for Orion at KSC, and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss Orion during arrival event at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion Off-Loaded for Cross Country Trek to Florida Home Base

After a brilliant first test flight, and historic Pacific Ocean splashdown and recovery on Dec. 5, 2014, NASA’s Orion spacecraft was brought onshore inside the USS Anchorage to the US Naval Base San Diego and has now been offloaded for the cross country trek back her home base in Florida.

Orion was off-loaded from the well deck of the USS Anchorage Monday night after the amphibious ship docked in San Diego.

NASA officials pronounced the two orbit, 4.5 hour flight maiden test flight of Orion on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission to be a complete success.

The EFT-1 spacecraft was recovered at sea, brought to land, and off-loaded by a combined team from NASA, the U.S. Navy, and Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

NASA's Orion spacecraft is being offloaded from the well deck of the USS Anchorage at Naval Base San Diego in California  and has been secured in its crew module recovery cradle to prepare for return to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit:  NASA/Amber Philman
NASA’s Orion spacecraft is being offloaded from the well deck of the USS Anchorage at Naval Base San Diego in California and has been secured in its crew module recovery cradle to prepare for return to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA/Amber Philman

Years of planning, rehearsals, and hard work on land, in the air, and at sea paid off handsomely for the Orion Recovery Team, led by the Ground Systems Development and Operations Program (GSDO) based at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“The recovery of Orion was flawless,” said Jeremy Graeber, NASA recovery director. “We wanted to be patient, take our time. We didn’t rush.”

Navy teams in Zodiac boats had attached a collar and winch line to Orion at sea and then safely towed it into the flooded well deck of the USS Anchorage and positioned it over rubber “speed bumps.”

Next they secured Orion inside its recovery cradle and transported it back to US Naval Base San Diego where it was off-loaded from the USS Anchorage.

Orion has now been moved about a mile to the “Mole Pier” where Lockheed Martin has conducted the first test inspection of the crew module and collected test data.

The Orion crew module is being moved into a covered structure at the Mole Pier at Naval Base San Diego in California where it will be prepared for return to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Orion was secured on its crew module recovery cradle in the well deck of the USS Anchorage after it was recovered from the Pacific Ocean.   Credit: NASA/Cory Huston
The Orion crew module is being moved into a covered structure at the Mole Pier at Naval Base San Diego in California where it will be prepared for return to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Orion was secured on its crew module recovery cradle in the well deck of the USS Anchorage after it was recovered from the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

Next, it was placed into the crew module transportation fixture with a rigorous environmental control system and generator to ensure the crew module’s safety during transport.

Orion will be hauled on a flatbed truck across the US for a nearly two-week trip back to Kennedy where it will arrive just in time for the Christmas holidays.

Technicians at KSC will examine every nook and cranny of Orion, and will disassemble it for up close inspection and lessons learned.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Exploration Roadmap to Mars Starts with Flawless Orion Launch and Landing

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s exploration roadmap aimed at sending Humans to Mars in the 2030s got off the ground magnificently with the flawless launch and landing of the agency’s new Orion deep space capsule on its maiden voyage to space on Friday, Dec. 5, 2014.

“The first look looks really good from a data standpoint and will help us as we go forward,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, at the post Orion landing media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

“We, as a species, are meant to press humanity further into the solar system and this is a first step. What a tremendous team effort.”

Orion roared to orbit atop the fiery fury of a 242 foot tall United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket – the world’s most powerful booster – at 7:05 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The unpiloted test flight of Orion on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission carried the capsule farther away from Earth than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has traveled in more than four decades.

Humans have not ventured beyond low Earth orbit since the launch of Apollo 17 on NASA’s final moon landing mission on Dec. 7, 1972.

Orion’s inaugural launch on Dec. 5, 2014 atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 7:05 a.m.  Credit: Alex Polimeni/Zero-G News/AmericaSpace
Orion’s inaugural launch on Dec. 5, 2014, atop United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 7:05 a.m. Credit: Alex Polimeni/Zero-G News/AmericaSpace

The first stage of the mammoth, triple barreled Delta IV Heavy generates some two million pounds of liftoff thrust and was the only rocket powerful enough to launch Orion and achieve its intended goals.

During the two orbit, 4.5 hour flight, Orion reached an altitude of 3,604 miles above Earth, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS).

The Delta rocket’s main stage and upper stage performed so well that Orion was injected into orbit within an accuracy of about 1 foot of the planned orbit, said Larry Price, Lockheed Martin Deputy Orion Program Manager in an interview with Universe Today.

“It’s phenomenal,” Price told me. NASA selected Lockheed Martin a decade ago as the prime contractor to design and build Orion.

A camera in the window of NASA's Orion spacecraft looks back at Earth during its unpiloted flight test in orbit. Credit: NASA Television
A camera in the window of NASA’s Orion spacecraft looks back at Earth during its unpiloted flight test in orbit. Credit: NASA Television

Orion was assembled, integrated, and tested inside the Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout Facility at KSC.

“Lockheed Martin did a tremendous job of getting Orion ready,” noted Gerstenmaier.

“Thanks to everyone for getting us to be the leader in space.”

The EFT-1 mission concluded with a successful parachute-assisted splashdown of the Orion crew module in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles southwest of San Diego.

Orion Service Module fairing separation. Credit: NASA TV
Orion Service Module fairing separation. Credit: NASA TV

“It was a difficult mission,” said Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion program manager at the KSC briefing. It appears to have been nearly flawless.”

“It is hard to have a better day than today, The upper stage put us right where we needed to be.”

“Today’s flight test of Orion is a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space on our Journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“The teams did a tremendous job putting Orion through its paces in the real environment it will endure as we push the boundary of human exploration in the coming years.”

The spacecraft was loaded with over 1200 sensors to collect critical performance data on numerous systems throughout the mission for evaluation by engineers.

EFT-1 tested the rocket, second stage, and jettison mechanisms, as well as avionics, attitude control, computers, environmental controls, and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft and ocean recovery operations.

It also tested the effects of intense radiation by traveling twice through the Van Allen radiation belt.

Approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes into the mission, the spacecraft separated and soon experienced the highest radiation levels of the mission.

At about 4 hours and 15 minutes, the capsule began its high speed re-entry through the atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph, thereby testing the 16.5-foot-wide heat shield at speeds approximating 85% of the reentry velocity for astronauts returning from voyages to the Red Planet.

The capsule survived scorching temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a successful test of the heat shield and thermal protection tiles, before splashing down on a trio of parachutes in the Pacific Ocean at 11:29 a.m. EST.

The Orion crew module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles southwest of San Diego.  Credit: NASA TV
The Orion crew module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles southwest of San Diego. Credit: NASA TV

The purpose was to check out many, but not all, of the systems critical to the safety of astronauts who will eventually travel to deep space in Orion.

“When Orion started there were still a lot of Apollo veterans. Now we have finally done something for our generation,” said Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion Program manager.

Onboard cameras captured stunning views during many stages of the EFT-1 mission, including the fairing jettison and views out the window.

“Some of those pictures where you could see the frame of the window, you don’t feel like you’re watching like a satellite, you feel like an astronaut yourself,” Geyer said.

In the Kennedy Space Center’s Press Site auditorium, agency leaders received prolonged applause on entering the room and spoke to members of the news media about the successful Orion Flight Test on Dec. 5, 2014. From left are: Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, Mark Geyer, Orion program manager, Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion Program manager, and NASA astronaut Rex Walheim.  Credit:  Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
In the Kennedy Space Center’s Press Site auditorium, agency leaders received prolonged applause on entering the room and spoke to members of the news media about the successful Orion Flight Test on Dec. 5, 2014. From left are: Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations; Mark Geyer, Orion program manager; Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion Program manager; and NASA astronaut Rex Walheim. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“That picture really meant something to me,” said astronaut Rex Walheim, who flew on the final space shuttle mission on STS-135.

A drone captured stunning images of Orion during the final plummet to Earth and parachute deployment.

The pace of the Orion program is constrained by budgets and is slower than anyone wishes.

The next Orion launch on the EM-1 mission is slated for the second half of 2018 and will also be unmanned during the debut launch of NASA’s powerful new SLS rocket.

America’s astronauts flying aboard Orion will venture farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars, and other destinations in our Solar System starting around 2020 or 2021 on Orion’s first crewed flight atop NASA’s new monster rocket – the SLS – concurrently under development.

Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage from onsite at the Kennedy Space Center about the historic launch on Dec. 5.

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

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Pathfinding Orion Rolls to Launch Pad, Hoisted atop Rocket for Maiden Blastoff

After years of effort, NASA’s pathfinding Orion spacecraft was rolled out to the launch pad early this morning, Wednesday, Nov. 12, and hoisted atop the rocket that will blast it to space on its history making maiden test flight in December.

Orion’s penultimate journey began late Tuesday, when the spacecraft was moved 22 miles on a wheeled transporter from the Kennedy Space Center assembly site to the Cape Canaveral launch site at pad 37 for an eight hour ride.

Watch a timelapse of the journey, below:

Technicians then lifted the 50,000 pound spacecraft about 200 feet onto a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, the world’s most powerful rocket, in preparation for its first trip to space.

Orion’s promise is that it will fly America’s astronauts back to deep space for the first time in over four decades since the NASA’s Apollo moon landing missions ended in 1972.

Liftoff of the state-of-the-art Orion spacecraft on the unmanned Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission is slated for December 4, 2014, from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“This is the next step on our journey to Mars, and it’s a big one,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

“In less than a month, Orion will travel farther than any spacecraft built for humans has been in more than 40 years. That’s a huge milestone for NASA, and for all of us who want to see humans go to deep space.”

NASA's Orion spacecraft arrived at Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to complete its 22 mile move from the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Orion is the exploration spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to deep space destinations, including an asteroid and on the journey to Mars. It will have emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during space travel and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities. The first uncrewed flight test of Orion is scheduled to launch Dec. 4, 2014 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. Credit:  NASA/Kim Shiflett
NASA’s Orion spacecraft arrived at Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to complete its 22 mile move from the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Orion is the exploration spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to deep space destinations, including an asteroid and on the journey to Mars. It will have emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during space travel and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities. The first uncrewed flight test of Orion is scheduled to launch Dec. 4, 2014, atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle that will eventually 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.

The fully assembled Orion vehicle stack consists of the crew module, service module, launch abort system, and adapter that connect it to the Delta IV Heavy rocket. It was completed in October inside Kennedy’s Launch Abort System Facility.

Today’s move was completed without issue after a one day delay due to storms in the KSC area.

The triple barreled Delta IV Heavy booster became the world’s most powerful rocket upon the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in 2011 and is the only rocket sufficiently powerful to launch the Orion EFT-1 spacecraft.

The two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight 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.

Orion will travel almost 60,000 miles into space during the uncrewed Dec. 4 test flight.

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

Ken Kremer

Orion’s Rocket Ready to Rock n’ Roll for Critical December Test Flight

The huge rocket that will blast NASA’s first Orion spacecraft into orbit is ready to Rock ‘n’ Roll on a critical two orbit test flight scheduled for December.

And Orion is so big and heavy that she’s not launching on just any old standard rocket.

To blast the uncrewed Orion to orbit on its maiden mission requires the most powerful booster on Planet Earth – namely the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket.

Liftoff of the state-of-the-art Orion spacecraft on the unmanned Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission is slated for December 4, 2014, from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Just days ago, the launch team successfully completed a countdown and wet dress rehearsal fueling test on the rocket itself – minus Orion – at launch complex 37.

The high fidelity rehearsal included fully powering up the booster and loading the tanks with cryogenic fuel and oxidizer,  liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen
The high fidelity rehearsal included fully powering up the booster and loading the tanks with cryogenic fuel and oxidizer, liquid oxygen, and liquid hydrogen

The high fidelity rehearsal included fully powering up the booster and loading the tanks with cryogenic fuel and oxidizer, liquid oxygen, and liquid hydrogen.

ULA technicians and engineers practiced the countdown on Nov. 5 which included fueling the core stages of the Delta IV Heavy rocket.

“Working in control rooms at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, countdown operators followed the same steps they will take on launch day. The simulation also allowed controllers to evaluate the fuel loading and draining systems on the complex rocket before the Orion spacecraft is placed atop the launcher,” said NASA.

The next key mission milestone is attachment of the completed Orion vehicle stack on top of the rocket. Read more about the fully assembled Orion – here.

Today’s scheduled rollout of Orion to the launch pad for hoisting atop the rocket was scrubbed due to poor weather.

The Orion spacecraft sits inside the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Ogive panels have been installed around the launch abort system.  Credit: NASA/Jim Grossman
The Orion spacecraft sits inside the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Ogive panels have been installed around the launch abort system. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossman

The triple barreled Delta IV Heavy booster became the world’s most powerful rocket upon the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in 2011 and is the only rocket sufficiently powerful to launch the Orion EFT-1 spacecraft.

The first stage of the mammoth Delta IV Heavy generates some 2 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

“The team has worked extremely hard to ensure this vehicle is processed with the utmost attention to detail and focus on mission success,” according to Tony Taliancich, ULA’s director of East Coast Launch Operations.

“The Delta IV Heavy is the world’s most powerful launch vehicle flying today, and we are excited to be supporting our customer for this critical flight test to collect data and reduce overall mission risks and costs for the program.”

From now until launch technicians will continue to conduct the final processing, testing, and checkout of the Delta IV Heavy booster.

These three RS-68 engines will power each of the attached Delta IV Heavy Common Booster Cores (CBCs) that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
These three RS-68 engines will power each of the attached Delta IV Heavy Common Booster Cores (CBCs) that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Delta IV Heavy first stage is comprised of a trio of three Common Booster Cores (CBCs).

Each CBC measures 134 feet in length and 17 feet in diameter. They are equipped with an RS-68 engine powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants producing 656,000 pounds of thrust. Together they generate 1.96 million pounds of thrust.

The first CBC booster was attached to the center booster in June. The second one was attached in early August.

Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

This fall I visited the ULA’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) during a media tour after the three CBCs had been joined together as well as earlier this year after the first two CBCs arrived by barge from their ULA assembly plant in Decatur, Alabama, located about 20 miles west of Huntsville. See my photos herein.

 Orion in orbit in this artists concept.  Credit: NASA

Orion in orbit in this artist’s concept. Credit: NASA

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle that will eventually 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.

The two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight 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.

“This mission is a stepping stone on NASA’s journey to Mars,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot.

The United Launch Alliance Delta-IV Heavy rocket tasked with launching NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission being hoisted vertical atop Space Launch Complex-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on the morning of Oct. 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace
The United Launch Alliance Delta-IV Heavy rocket tasked with launching NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission being hoisted vertical atop Space Launch Complex-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on the morning of Oct. 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

.

“The EFT-1 mission is so important to NASA. We will test the capsule with a reentry velocity of about 85% of what’s expected by [astronauts] returning from Mars.”

“We will test the heat shield, the separation of the fairing, and exercise over 50% of the eventual software and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft. We will also test the recovery systems coming back into the Pacific Ocean.”

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

Ken Kremer

NASA’s completed Orion EFT 1 crew module loaded on wheeled transporter during move to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHFS) on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s completed Orion EFT 1 crew module loaded on wheeled transporter during move to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHFS) on Sept. 11, 2014, at the Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

NASA’s 1st Orion Complete and Ready to Roll to Launch Pad

Technicians at the Kennedy Space Center have put the finishing touches on NASA’s first Orion crew module, marking the conclusion of NASA’s multi-year-long effort to build and prepare the vehicle for its maiden launch in December and take the first steps towards sending humans back to deep space in four decades since Apollo.

The Orion spacecraft is all set to be rolled out from Kennedy’s Launch Abort System Facility to Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Monday evening, Nov 10.

Orion is slated to liftoff on its first unmanned orbital test flight, dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), on Dec. 4.

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle that will eventually 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.

The fully assembled Orion vehicle stack consists of the crew module, service module, launch abort system and adapter, residing on a transporter in Kennedy’s Launch Abort System Facility.

The Orion spacecraft sits inside the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Ogive panels have been installed around the launch abort system.  Credit: NASA/Jim Grossman
The Orion spacecraft sits inside the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Ogive panels have been installed around the launch abort system. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossman

“This is just the first of what will be a long line of exploration missions beyond low earth orbit, and in a few years we will be sending our astronauts to destinations humans have never experienced,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development, in a statement.

“It’s thrilling to be a part of the journey now, at the beginning.”

After arriving at pad 37, the Orion stack will be hoisted and installed atop the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket that will carry it into space for its uncrewed EFT-1 maiden flight test.

Orion Prepares to Move to Launch Pad. Credit: NASA
Orion Prepares to Move to Launch Pad. Credit: NASA

The maiden blastoff of the state-of-the-art Orion spacecraft on the EFT-1 mission is slated for December 4, 2014, from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop the triple barreled United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy booster.

The two-orbit, four and a half hour 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.

It will test the avionics and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft.

Then the spacecraft will travel back through the atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph and temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit to test the heat shield, before splashing down for a parachute assisted landing in the Pacific Ocean.

“NASA is pushing the boundaries of exploration and working hard to send people to Mars in the future,” said Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager, in a NASA statement.

“When we set foot on the Red Planet, we’ll be exploring for all of humanity.”

NASA’s Orion Program manager Mark Geyer discusses Orion EFT-1 mission.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s Orion Program manager Mark Geyer discusses Orion EFT-1 mission. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s Orion coverage and he’ll be at at KSC for the launch on Dec. 4.

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

Ken Kremer

Orion Prepares to Move to Launch Pad. Credit: NASA
Orion Prepares to Move to Launch Pad. Credit: NASA

Assembly Complete for NASA’s Maiden Orion Spacecraft Launching in December 2014

Technicians at the Kennedy Space Center have completed the final major assembly work on NASA’s maiden Orion crew module slated to launch on its first unmanned orbital test flight this December, dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1)

After first attaching the Launch Abort System (LAS) to the top of the capsule, engineers carefully installed a fairing composed of a set of four ogive panels over the crew module and the abort systems lower structural framework joining them together.

“The ogive panels smooth the airflow over the conical spacecraft to limit sound and vibration, which will make for a much smoother ride for the astronauts who will ride inside Orion in the future,” according to a NASA description.

Upon finishing the panel assembly work inside the Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the teams cleared the last major hurdle before the Orion stack is rolled out to launch pad 37 in mid-November and hoisted to the top of the Delta IV Heavy rocket.

Technicians complete final assembly of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft with installation of the  last ogive close out panels on the Launch Abort System that smooth airflow. Credit: Photo credit: Kim Shiflett
Technicians complete final assembly of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft with installation of the last ogive close out panels on the Launch Abort System that smooth airflow. Photo credit: Kim Shiflett

The Orion stack is comprised of the LAS, crew module (CM) and service module (SM).

The maiden blastoff of the state-of-the-art Orion spacecraft on the EFT-1 mission is slated for December 4, 2014, from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop the triple barreled United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy booster.

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle that will eventually 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.

NASA’s completed Orion EFT 1 crew module loaded on wheeled transporter during move to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHFS) on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s completed Orion EFT 1 crew module loaded on wheeled transporter during move to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) on Sept. 11, 2014, at the Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The two-orbit, four and a half hour 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. It will test the avionics and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft.

Then the spacecraft will travel back through the atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph and temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit to test the heat shield, before splashing down for a parachute assisted landing in the Pacific Ocean.

Launch Abort System (LAS) for Orion EFT-1 on view horizontally inside the Launch Abort System Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, prior to installation atop the crew module. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch Abort System (LAS) for Orion EFT-1 on view horizontally inside the Launch Abort System Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, prior to installation atop the crew module. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The LAS plays a critically important role to ensure crew safety.

In case of an emergency situation, the LAS is designed to ignite within milliseconds to rapidly propel the astronauts inside the crew module away from the rocket and save the astronauts’ lives. The quartet of LAS abort motors would generate some 500,000 pounds of thrust to pull the capsule away from the rocket.

And don’t forget that you can fly your name on Orion and also print out an elegant looking “boarding pass.”

Details below and in my article – here.

NASA announced that the public can submit their names for inclusion on a dime-sized microchip that will travel on Orion and succeeding spacecraft voyaging to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, including Mars.

The deadline to submit your name is soon: Oct 31, 2014.

Click on this weblink posted online by NASA today: http://go.usa.gov/vcpz

NASA invites you to send your name to Mars via the first Orion test flight in December 2014.  Deadline for submissions is Oct 31, 2014. Join over 170,000 others! See link below. Credit: NASA
NASA invites you to send your name to Mars via the first Orion test flight in December 2014. Deadline for submissions is Oct 31, 2014. Join over 170,000 others! See link below. Credit: NASA

“NASA is pushing the boundaries of exploration and working hard to send people to Mars in the future,” said Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager, in a NASA statement.

“When we set foot on the Red Planet, we’ll be exploring for all of humanity. Flying these names will enable people to be part of our journey.”

NASA’s Orion Program manager Mark Geyer discusses Orion EFT-1 mission.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s Orion Program manager Mark Geyer discusses Orion EFT-1 mission, while holding a model of the Launch Abort System. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

The United Launch Alliance Delta-IV Heavy rocket tasked with launching NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission being hoisted vertical atop Space Launch Complex-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on the morning of Oct. 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace
The United Launch Alliance Delta-IV Heavy rocket tasked with launching NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission being hoisted vertical atop Space Launch Complex-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on the morning of Oct. 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

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Learn more about Orion, Space Taxis, and NASA Human and Robotic Spaceflight at Ken’s upcoming presentations:

Oct 26/27: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA

What Is A Quasar?

I love it when scientists discover something unusual in nature. They have no idea what it is, and then over decades of research, evidence builds, and scientists grow to understand what’s going on.

My favorite example? Quasars.

Astronomers first knew they had a mystery on their hands in the 1960s when they turned the first radio telescopes to the sky.

They detected the radio waves streaming off the Sun, the Milky Way and a few stars, but they also turned up bizarre objects they couldn’t explain. These objects were small and incredibly bright.

They named them quasi-stellar-objects or “quasars”, and then began to argue about what might be causing them. The first was found to be moving away at more than a third the speed of light.

But was it really?

An artist's conception of jets protruding from an AGN.
An artist’s conception of jets protruding from an AGN.
Maybe we were seeing the distortion of gravity from a black hole, or could it be the white hole end of a wormhole. And If it was that fast, then it was really, really far… 4 billion light years away. And it generating as much energy as an entire galaxy with a hundred billion stars.

What could do this?

Here’s where Astronomers got creative. Maybe quasars weren’t really that bright, and it was our understanding of the size and expansion of the Universe that was wrong. Or maybe we were seeing the results of a civilization, who had harnessed all stars in their galaxy into some kind of energy source.

Then in the 1980s, astronomers started to agree on the active galaxy theory as the source of quasars. That, in fact, several different kinds of objects: quasars, blazars and radio galaxies were all the same thing, just seen from different angles. And that some mechanism was causing galaxies to blast out jets of radiation from their cores.

But what was that mechanism?

This artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. Image credit: NASA/ESA
This artist’s concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. Image credit: NASA/ESA
We now know that all galaxies have supermassive black holes at their centers; some billions of times the mass of the Sun. When material gets too close, it forms an accretion disk around the black hole. It heats up to millions of degrees, blasting out an enormous amount of radiation.

The magnetic environment around the black hole forms twin jets of material which flow out into space for millions of light-years. This is an AGN, an active galactic nucleus.

An artist's impression of how quasars might be able to construct their own host galaxies. Image Credit: ESO/L. CalçadaWhen the jets are perpendicular to our view, we see a radio galaxy. If they’re at an angle, we see a quasar. And when we’re staring right down the barrel of the jet, that’s a blazar. It’s the same object, seen from three different perspectives.

Supermassive black holes aren’t always feeding. If a black hole runs out of food, the jets run out of power and shut down. Right up until something else gets too close, and the whole system starts up again.

The Milky Way has a supermassive black hole at its center, and it’s all out of food. It doesn’t have an active galactic nucleus, and so, we don’t appear as a quasar to some distant galaxy.

We may have in the past, and may again in the future. In 10 billion years or so, when the Milky way collides with Andromeda, our supermassive black hole may roar to life as a quasar, consuming all this new material.

If you’d like more information on Quasars, check out NASA’s Discussion on Quasars, and here’s a link to NASA’s Ask an Astrophysicist Page about Quasars.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Quasars Listen here, Episode 98: Quasars.

Sources: UT-Knoxville, NASA, Wikipedia

NASA Alters 1st Orion/SLS Flight – Bold Upgrade to Deep Space Asteroid Harbinger Planned

NASA Orion spacecraft blasts off atop 1st Space Launch System rocket in 2017 – attached to European provided service module – on an ambitious mission to explore Deep Space some 40,000 miles beyond the Moon, where an asteroid could be relocated as early as 2021. Credit: NASA
Story updated with further details[/caption]

NASA managers have announced a bold new plan to significantly alter and upgrade the goals and complexity of the 1st mission of the integrated Orion/Space Launch System (SLS) human exploration architecture – planned for blastoff in late 2017.

The ambitious first flight, called Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), would be targeted to send an unpiloted Orion spacecraft to a point more than 40,000 miles (70,000 kilometers) beyond the Moon as a forerunner supporting NASA’s new Asteroid Redirect Initiative – recently approved by the Obama Administration.

The EM-1 flight will now serve as an elaborate harbinger to NASA’s likewise enhanced EM-2 mission, which would dispatch a crew of astronauts for up close investigation of a small Near Earth Asteroid relocated to the Moon’s vicinity.

Orion crew module separates from Space Launch System (SLS) upper stage. Credit: NASA
Orion crew module separates from Space Launch System (SLS) upper stage. Credit: NASA

Until recently NASA’s plan had been to launch the first crewed Orion atop the 2nd SLS rocket in 2021 to a high orbit around the moon on the EM-2 mission, said NASA Associate Administrator Lori Garver in an prior interview with me at the Kennedy Space Center.

Concept of NASA spacecraft with Asteroid capture mechanism deployed to redirect a small space rock to a stable lunar orbit for later study by astronauts aboard Orion crew capsule. Credit: NASA.
Concept of NASA spacecraft with Asteroid capture mechanism deployed to redirect a small space rock to a stable lunar orbit for later study by astronauts aboard Orion crew capsule. Credit: NASA.

The enhanced EM-1 flight would involve launching an unmanned Orion, fully integrated with the Block 1 SLS to a Deep Retrograde Orbit (DRO) near the moon, a stable orbit in the Earth-moon system where an asteroid could be moved to as early as 2021.

Orion’s mission duration would be nearly tripled to 25 days from the original 10 days.

“The EM-1 mission with include approximately nine days outbound, three to six days in deep retrograde orbit and nine days back,” Brandi Dean, NASA Johnson Space Center spokeswoman told Universe Today exclusively.

The proposed much more technologically difficult EM-1 mission would allow for an exceptionally more vigorous work out and evaluation of the design of all flight systems for both Orion and SLS before risking a flight with humans aboard.

Asteroid Capture in Progress
Asteroid Capture in Progress

A slew of additional thruster firings would exercise the engines to change orbital parameters outbound, around the moon and inbound for reentry.

The current Deep Retrograde Orbit (DRO) plan includes several thruster firings from the Orion service module, including a powered lunar flyby, an insertion at DRO, an extraction maneuver from the DRO and a powered flyby on return to Earth.

Orion would be outfitted with sensors to collect a wide variety of measurements to evaluate its operation in the harsh space environment.

“EM-1 will have a compliment of both operational flight instrumentation and development flight instrumentation. This instrumentation suite gives us the ability to measure many attributes of system functionality and performance, including thermal, stress, displacement, acceleration, pressure and radiation,” Dean told me.

The EM-1 flight has many years of planning and development ahead and further revisions prior to the 2017 liftoff are likely.

“Final flight test objectives and the exact set of instrumentation required to meet those objectives is currently under development,” Dean explained.

Orion is NASA’s next generation manned space vehicle following the retirement of NASA’s trio of Space Shuttles in 2011.

The SLS launcher will be the most powerful and capable rocket ever built by humans – exceeding the liftoff thrust of the Apollo era Moon landing booster, the mighty Saturn V.

“We sent Apollo around the moon before we landed on it and tested the space shuttle’s landing performance before it ever returned from space.” said Dan Dumbacher, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, in a statement.

“We’ve always planned for EM-1 to serve as the first test of SLS and Orion together and as a critical step in preparing for crewed flights. This change still gives us that opportunity and also gives us a chance to test operations planning ahead of our mission to a relocated asteroid.”

Both Orion and SLS are under active and accelerating development by NASA and its industrial partners.

The 1st Orion capsule is slated to blast off on the unpiloted EFT-1 test flight in September 2014 atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket on a two orbit test flight to an altitude of 3,600 miles above Earth’s surface.

Technicians work on mockups of the Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) to simulate critical assembly techniques inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida for the EFT-1 mission due to liftoff in September 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Technicians work on mockups of the Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) to simulate critical assembly techniques inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida for the EFT-1 mission due to liftoff in September 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It will then reenter Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of about 20,000 MPH (11 km/sec) and endure temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a critical test designed to evaluate the performance of Orion’s heatshield and numerous spacecraft systems.

Orion EFT-1 is already under construction at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) by prime contractor Lockheed Martin – read my earlier story here.

Integration and stacking tests with Orion’s emergency Launch Abort System are also in progress at KSC – details here.

NASA says the SLS is also in the midst of a extensive review process called the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) to ensure that all launch vehicle components and systems will achieve the specified performance targets and be completed in time to meet the 2017 launch date. The PDR will be completed later this summer.

NASA’s goal with Orion/SLS is to send humans to the Moon and other Deep Space destinations like Asteroids and Mars for the first time in over forty years since the final manned lunar landing by Apollo 17 back in 1972.

NASA Headquarters will make a final decision on upgrading the EM-1 mission after extensive technical reviews this summer.

Ken Kremer

Schematic of Orion components. Credit: NASA
Schematic of Orion components. Credit: NASA

Dust in the Wind

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The stellar wind, that is! This beautiful image, taken by NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WISE) shows a vast ring of interstellar dust and gas being forced outwards by the wind and radiation from a massive star.

The star, HR8281, is located in the center of the image, the topmost star in a small triangular formation of blue stars to the upper left of the tip of a bright elongated structure – the end of the “elephant trunk” that gives the nebula its name. The star may not look like much, but HR8281’s powerful stellar wind is what’s sculpting the huge cloud of dust into the beautiful shapes seen in this infrared image.

Located 2,450 light-years from Earth, the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula spans 100 light-years. The “trunk” itself is about 30 light-years long. (That’s about, oh… 180 trillion miles!)

Structures like this are common in nebulae. They are formed when the stellar wind – the outpouring of ultraviolet radiation and charged particles that are constantly streaming off stars – blows away the gas and dust near a star, leaving only the densest areas. It’s basically erosion on a massive interstellar scale.

The tip of the "trunk" and the triangle of stars, the topmost of which is HR8281.

It’s not just a destructive process, though. Within those dense areas new stars can form… in fact, in the bright tip of the trunk above a small dark spot can be seen. That’s an area that’s been cleared by the creation of a new star. When a baby star “ignites” and its nuclear fusion factory turns on, its stellar wind clears away the dust and gas in the cloud it was formed from. Nebulae aren’t just pretty clouds in space… they’re stellar nurseries!

The red-colored stars in this image are other newborn stars, still wrapped in their dusty “cocoons”.

The colors used in this image represent specific wavelengths of infrared light. Blue and cyan (blue-green) represent light emitted at wavelengths of 3.4 and 4.6 microns, which is predominantly from stars. Green and red represent light from 12 and 22 microns, respectively, which is mostly emitted by dust.

Read more about this image on the WISE site here.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team