Orion Capsule Accelerating to 2014 Launch and Eventual Asteroid Exploration

NASA is picking up the construction pace on the inaugural space-bound Orion crew capsule at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida – and accelerating towards blastoff on the unmanned Exploration Flight Test-1 mission (EFT-1) slated for September 2014 atop a mammoth Delta 4 Heavy Booster which will one day lead to deep space human forays to Asteroids and Mars.

Orion was at the center of an impressive and loud beehive of action packed assembly activities by technicians during my recent exclusive tour of the spacecraft to inspect ongoing progress inside the renovated Orion manufacturing assembly facility in the Operations and Checkout Building (O & C) at KSC.

“We plan to power up Orion for the first time this summer,” said Scott Wilson in an exclusive interview with Universe Today beside the Orion vehicle. Wilson is Orion’s Production Operations manager for NASA at KSC.

The Orion EFT-1 flight is a critical first step towards achieving NASA’s new goal of capturing and retrieving a Near Earth Asteroid for eventual visit by astronauts flying aboard an Orion vehicle by 2021 – if NASA’s budget request is approved.

An artist concept shows Orion as it will appear in space for the Exploration Flight Test-1 attached to a Delta IV second stage.   Credit: NASA
An artist concept shows Orion as it will appear in space for the Exploration Flight Test-1 attached to a Delta IV second stage. Credit: NASA

KSC will have a leading role in NASA’s asteroid retrieval project that could occur some four years earlier than President Obama’s targeted goal of 2025 for a human journey to an asteroid.

Capturing an asteroid and dispatching astronauts aboard Orion to collect precious rock samples will aid our scientific understanding of the formation of the Solar System as well as bolster Planetary Defense strategies – the importance of which is gathering steam following the unforeseen Russian meteor strike in February which injured over 1200 people and damaged over 3000 buildings.

Dozens of highly skilled workers were busily cutting metal, drilling holes, bolting screws and attaching a wide range of mechanical and electrical components and bracketry to the Orion pressure vessel’s primary structure as Universe Today conducted a walk around of the EFT-1 capsule, Service Module and assorted assembly gear inside the O&C.

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

Lockheed Martin is the primary contractor for Orion. A growing number of employees hired by Lockheed and United Space Alliance (USA) are “working 2 shifts per day 7 days a week to complete the assembly work by year’s end,” said Jules Schneider, Orion Project manager for Lockheed Martin at KSC, during an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

I watched as the workers were boring hundreds of precision holes and carefully tightening the high strength steel bolts to attach the top to bottom ring segments made of titanium to the main load paths on the pressure vessel.

“We are installing lots of wiring to support ground test instrumentation for the strain gauges as well as microphones and accelerometers.”

“The simulated back shell panels are being installed now as guides,” said Wilson. “The real back shell panels and heat shield will be installed onto the structure later this year.”

“The heat shield is the biggest one ever built, 5 meters in diameter. Its bigger than Apollo and Mars Science Lab. It varies in thickness from about 1 to 3 inches depending on the expected heating.”

“We are making good progress on the Orion Service module too. The outer panels will be installed soon,” Wilson explained.

The olive green colored crew module was clamped inside the birdcage-like Structural Assembly Jig during my visit. The Jig has multiple degrees of freedom to maneuver the capsule and more easily enable the detailed assembly work.

“The technicians are installing strain gauges and secondary structure components to get it ready for the upcoming structural loads test,” said Schneider.

“After that we need to finish installing all the remaining parts of the primary structure and a significant portion of the secondary structure.”

For the next stage of processing, the EFT-1 crew module has been lifted out of the birdcage Jig and moved onto an adjacent dedicated work station for loads testing at the Operations and Checkout building.

As reported in my earlier article the Orion pressure vessel sustained three ‘hairline” cracks in the lower half of the aft bulkhead during proof pressure testing of the vessel and welds at the O & C.

I was observing as the technicians were carefully milling out the miniscule bulkhead fractures.

Workers have now installed custom built replacement brackets and reinforcing doublers on the aft bulkhead.

“We will do the protocol loads test with pressure using about 9 different load cases the vehicle will see during the EFT-1 flight. Chute deployment and jettison motor deployment is a driving load case,” said Schneider.

“We will also squeeze the capsule,” said Wilson.

“That structural loads testing of the integrated structure will take about 6 to 8 weeks. There are thousands of gauges on the vehicle to collect data,” Schneider elaborated.

“The test data will be compared to the analytical modeling to see where we are at and how well it matched the predictions – it’s like acceptance testing.”

“After we finish the structural loads tests we can than start the assembly and integration of all the other subsystems.”

“When we are done with the ground testing program then we remove all the ground test instrumentation and start installing all the actual flight systems including harnesses and instrumentation, the plumbing and everything else,” Schneider explained.

Orion hardware built by contractors and subcontractors from virtually every state all across the U.S is being delivered to KSC for installation onto EFT-1. Orion is a nationwide human spaceflight project.

Concept of Spacecraft with Asteroid Capture Mechanism Deployed. Credit: NASA.
Concept of Spacecraft with Asteroid Capture Mechanism Deployed. Credit: NASA.

During the unmanned Orion EFT-1 mission, the capsule will fly on a two orbit test flight to an altitude of 3,600 miles above Earth’s surface, farther than any human spacecraft has gone in 40 years.

It will then fire braking rockets to plunge back to Earth, re-enter the atmosphere at about 20,000 MPH and test numerous spacecrafts systems, the heat shield and all three parachutes for an ocean splashdown.

Meanwhile other Orion EFT-1 components such as the emergency Launch Abort System (LAS) and Service Module are coming together – read my Orion follow-up reports.

Humans have not ventured beyond low Earth orbit since the Apollo Moon landings ended in 1972. Orion will change that.

Ken Kremer


Learn more about Orion, Antares, SpaceX, Curiosity and NASA robotic and human spaceflight missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

April 20/21 : “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus “The Space Shuttle Finale and the Future of NASA – Orion, SpaceX, Antares and more!” NEAF Astronomy Forum, Rockland Community College, Suffern, NY. 3-4 PM Sat & Sunday. Display table all day.

April 28: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus the Space Shuttle, SpaceX, Antares, Orion and more. Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville, NJ, 130 PM

Orion EFT-1 crew cabin construction ongoing at the Kennedy Space Center which is due to blastoff in September 2014 atop a Delta 4 Heavy rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer
Orion EFT-1 crew cabin construction ongoing at the Kennedy Space Center which is due to blastoff in September 2014 atop a Delta 4 Heavy rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer

Liftoff! Delta IV Launches Next Generation GPS Satellite

A Delta IV rocket launched from Florida today, sending a next-generation Global Positioning System satellite into orbit. The rocket lifted off at 12:10 UTC with the GPS IIF-3 satellite that will be part of the GPS system that is used by both civilians and the military. The new satellite will replace a 19-year-old navigation satellite in the global system that includes 31 operational satellites on-orbit which broadcast position, navigation and timing information to people around the world.

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV stands ready for launch at Space Launch complex 37 with the GPS IIF-3 satellite. Credit: ULA

The satellite, built by Boeing, is the third of 12 planned launches to provide improved GPS signals, featuring improved anti-jam technology, more precise atomic clocks, an upgraded civilian channel for commercial aviation and on-board processors that can be reprogrammed in flight, according to CBS News.

The new satellite should be operational by November.

Delta IV Rocket Launches from Cape Canaveral with US Military Satellite

A beautiful night for a launch Thursday evening as a heavy-lift Delta IV rocket thundered off the launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, sending a broadband communications satellite into orbit for the US military. Observers at the launch site said they could see the rocket several minutes into the flight, witnessing the separation of the strap-on boosters.

The WGS-4 mission is the fourth satellite for the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) system. The WGS satellites will provide enhanced communications capabilities to US soldiers in the field for the next decade and beyond.
Continue reading “Delta IV Rocket Launches from Cape Canaveral with US Military Satellite”

Construction Begins on the 1st Space-Bound Orion Crew Module


Production of NASA’s first space-bound Orion crew module has at last begun at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans – that’s the same facility that for more than three decades was responsible for manufacturing the huge orange colored External Tanks for the just retired Space Shuttle Program.

The first weld of structural elements of the Orion crew cabin was completed by Lockheed Martin engineers working at Michoud on Sept. 9, 2011. This marks a major milestone on the path toward the full assembly and first test flight of an Orion capsule.

This state of the art Orion vehicle also holds the distinction of being the first new NASA spacecraft built to blast humans to space since Space Shuttle Endeavour was assembled at a California manufacturing facility in 1991.

This capsule will be used during Orion’s first test flight in space which could occur as early as 2013. Credit: NASA

Eventually, Orion crew modules with astronaut crews will fly atop NASA’s newly announced monster rocket – the SLS – to exciting new deep space destinations beyond low Earth Orbit; such as the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.

“This marks the beginning of NASA’s next step to send humans far beyond Earth orbit,” said Orion program manager Mark Geyer. “The Orion team has maintained a steady focus on progress, and we now are beginning to build hardware for spaceflight. With this milestone, we enter the home stretch toward our first trip to space in this new vehicle.”

The first unmanned Orion test flight – dubbed OFT-1 – could come as early as 2013 depending on the funding available from NASA and the US Federal Government.

Welding the First Space-Bound Orion at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans by NASA and Lockheed Martin contractor team. Credit: NASA

NASA is still deciding which rocket to use for the initial test flight – most likely a Delta 4 Heavy but possibly also the new Liberty rocket proposed by ATK and EADS.

The framework welds were completed using the same type of friction stir welding (FSW) process that was implemented to construct the last several of the 135 Space Shuttle External Tanks at MAF that flew during the shuttle program.

Friction Stir Welding creates seamless welds in the Aluminum – Lithium alloys used for construction that are far stronger and more reliable and reproducible compared to conventional welding methods.

The first Space-Bound Orion will look similar to this initial Orion Ground Test Article (GTA) prototype crew cabin built in 2010 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, LA after individual segments were bound together by Friction Stir Welding techniques. Note the astronaut crew hatch and windows. The GTA is now undergoing testing and integration at Lockheed’s facilities in Denver, Colorado. Credit: Ken Kremer

Orion spacecraft will be manufactured at Michoud in New Orleans, Louisiana, then sent to the Operations & Checkout Facility at Kennedy Space Center for final assembly and integration prior to launch.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion. The vehicle was recently renamed the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) after being resurrected following its cancellation by President Obama as a key element of NASA’s now defunct Project Constellation “Return to the Moon” program.

NASA's Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle
The Orion MPVC Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle ground test article (GTA) is shown at the Lockheed Martin Vertical Test Facility in Colorado. The GTA’s heat shield and thermal protection backshell was completed in preparation for environmental testing. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

The first crewed Orion won’t launch until the 2nd flight of the SLS set for around 2020 said William Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate, at an SLS briefing for reporters on Sept. 14.

Lockheed has already built an initial version of the Orion crew capsule known as the Orion Ground Test Article (GTA) and which is currently undergoing stringent vibration and acoustics testing to mimic the harsh environments of space which the capsule must survive.

Watch for my upcoming Orion GTA status report.

Sketch of the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle. Credit: NASA
Artists concept of the STS blasting off with the Orion Crew Module from the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA

Read Ken’s continuing features about the Orion project and Orion GTA starting here:
First Orion Assembled at Denver, Another Orion Displayed at Kennedy Space Center
Lockheed Accelerates Orion to Achieve 2013 launch and potential Lunar Flyby

Spectacular Sunset Launch of new US Spy Satellite


A Delta IV rocket carrying a top secret military payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) blasted off Friday evening (March 11) at 6:38 p.m. from Cape Canaveral at Space Launch Complex-37 in Florida.

The NROL-27 payload supports the national defense and all information about its mission and goals is a classified military secret. Some outside observers say NROL-27 may be a powerful military communications satellite for relay of vital national security data rather than a signals intelligence satellite.

See our launch photo gallery below from Alan Walters and Ken Kremer

Delta IV blast off with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. Credit: Alan Walters. awaltersphoto.com
The NRO is located in Chantilly, VA. and charged with the design, construction and operation of the US fleet of intelligence gathering reconnaissance satellites. Their goal is achieving information superiority for the U.S. Government and Armed Forces.

“This mission helps ensure that crucial NRO resources will continue to strengthen our national defense,” said Col James Ross, 45th Space Wing vice commander.

The sunset liftoff into a clear blue sky was visually stunning. With the winds whipping towards our viewing site along the NASA causeway, the roaring rocket thunder was especially loud. Upper level winds threatened to derail the launch. Liftoff was delayed by about 45 minutes due to strong wind gusts which finally calmed to fall within the launch criteria.

“This is the 50th anniversary year of the NRO. NROL-27 is the fifth of six launches for the NRO in the 2010-2011 time period and marks our most aggressive launch schedule in two decades,” said Loretta Desio, NRO spokesperson, in an interview for Universe Today at the viewing site.

Sunset blastoff of Delta IV with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. View from the NASA Causeway about 2.7 miles away. Credit: Ken Kremer. kenkremer.com
The NROL-27 satellite is named “Gryphon”.

Colors and works in the logo represent the United States Marine Corps, United States Navy, VA Tech, and fallen veterans. Logo symbols represent the United States Air Force, United States Army and two teammates killed on 9/11,” according to ULA spokesperson Chris Chavez.

The unmanned Delta IV rocket was built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) and launched by the 45th Space Wing stationed at Patrick Air Force Base. ULA is a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

“The outstanding ULA, NRO and Air Force partnership made yet another successful mission,” said Lt. Col. William Heuck, 5th Space Launch Squadron commander.

NROL-27 was bolted atop the Delta IV rocket in the Medium + (4,2) configuration with a single liquid fueled booster and two small side mounted solid rocket boosters. The Delta IV stands 62.5 meters (205 feet) tall and can launch payloads up to 13.5 tons into low-Earth orbit and 6.6 tons into toward the geosynchronous orbits used by communications satellites.

The flight entered a news blackout after the successful separation of the payload fairing at about four and one half minutes after blastoff. No further information about the satellite will be forthcoming. The 4 meter diameter composite nose cone protects the satellite during ascent through the Earth’s atmosphere.

“I am extremely proud of the entire government and contractor team who supported this launch, said Col. Alan Davis, Director of the Office of Space Launch in the National Reconnaissance Office.

The Delta IV launch occurred just six days after the Atlas V launch of the second Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-2) — the mini space shuttle on another secret mission. See my Atlas report here.

The Florida Space Coast has seen a surge of rocket launchings in the past month. The Delta IV launch is the last of three successful liftoffs in the past few weeks and follows closely on the heels of the Atlas and the final flight of Space Shuttle Discovery.

Delta IV blasts off with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. Credit: Alan Walters. awaltersphoto.com
Delta IV arcs away to orbit with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. View from the NASA Causeway about 2.7 miles away. Credit: Ken Kremer
Twin Solid rocket booster separation from Delta rocket 1st Stage occurred at T+plus 1 minute, 42 seconds. Credit: Ken Kremer
Delta IV blasts off with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. View from the NASA Causeway. Credit: Ken Kremer
Delta IV blasts off with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. View from the NASA Causeway about 2.7 miles away. Credit: Ken Kremer
Delta 4 and NROL 27 streak to space. Credit: Ken Kremer
Space Photographers in action including this author, captured at the Delta 4 launch by Spaceflight Now. Photo Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
Colorful vapor exhaust trails from Delta 4 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer
Delta IV prior to launch from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral. Credit: Alan Walters. awaltersphoto.com
Delta 4 NROL-27 mission patch.
Gryphon logo: Colors and works represent the United States Marine Corps, United States Navy, VA Tech, and fallen veterans. Logo symbols represent the United States Air Force, United States Army and two teammates killed on 9/11.
The patch may contain hidden clues about the mission

Lockheed Martin Wants to Launch Orion Spacecraft – on a Delta IV Heavy


After the announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) one of the proposals to reduce the space flight ‘gap’ between the shuttle program and the Constellation Program was to attach the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) to a Delta IV Heavy rocket. With all the political wrangling this simple solution appeared lost – or so it was thought. The idea of man-rating a Delta IV heavy never seemed to quite fade away and now a plan is under way to launch the Orion spacecraft on top of one of these massive launch vehicles – within the next three years.

More importantly by launching these test flights, NASA will be able to review up to three-quarters of the technical challenges involved with a flight to either the moon or to an asteroid – without risking a crew. Some of the elements that would be checked out on this unmanned test flight would be:

• Spacecraft stabilization and control.

• Parachutes used for reentry and other systems used to recover the spacecraft.

• Micrometeoroid shielding along with other systems used to protect the vehicle.

The manufacturer of the Orion spacecraft, Lockheed Martin, plans to have the first flight take place as soon as 2013. This test flight would launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37. If all goes well? Astronauts could be riding the Delta IV heavy to destinations such as the moon or an asteroid by 2015. For now though these plans are still in their infancy.

If all does go according to how Lockheed Martin human spaceflight engineers plan – the first mission to an asteroid could beat the 2025 date that President Obama set during his April visit to Kennedy Space Center – by ten years.

Each successive flight after the first unmanned mission would shake out the technology more and more until crews fly into orbit. The first unmanned flight, as envisioned by Lockheed Martin, would emulate many of the elements of a mission to either an asteroid or to the moon.

For long-time followers of the space program, witnessing a man-rated launch of a Delta IV heavy will very much be a blast from the past. In the early days of the space program astronauts rode Atlas and Titan rockets into orbit (these rockets were actually man-rated Cold-War missiles). Attached atop the Delta IV would be the Orion capsule and on top of that would be a Launch Abort System (LAS). This last component is a small mini-rocket that would pull the capsule up and away from the Delta if there is an emergency.

Once the flight is completed, the Orion will splashdown in the same general area as Space Exploration Technology’s (SpaceX’s) Dragon Spacecraft – the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

The Orion Spacecraft has proved itself to be a survivor. President Obama initially promised to support NASA’s lunar ambitions on the campaign trail – a promise he went back on once elected. He then attempted to cancel all elements of the Constellation Program of which Orion was a key part. This proposal landed with a resounding thud. He then attempted to gain support for his space plan by resurrecting Orion as a stripped down lifeboat for the International Space Station (ISS) – this too met with little support. Eventually, after much Congressional wrangling, Orion emerged as the one element of Constellation – which Obama could not kill.

Congress has put some support behind his plan to have commercial space firms provide transportation to low-Earth-orbit (LEO). However, these firms have no experience whatsoever launching men and material to orbit – and Congress wanted to have a backup plan – that meant Orion. As the launch vehicle that would have hefted Orion to orbit was effectively dead another rocket was required – the best candidate was the Delta IV heavy.

Within three years a Delta IV Heavy like this one could launch the first Orion capsule. Photo Credit: Universe Today/Alan Walters - awaltersphoto.com

GOES-P Goes to Space

A Delta IV rocket rumbled and roared off launch pad 37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida Thursday evening, sending the GOES-P satellite soaring into a crisp and clear night sky. With liftoff at 6:57 p.m. EST, the rocket could be seen for several minutes after launch, and booster separation was clearly visible to observers on the NASA Causeway. The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-P, or GOES-P, is the latest in a series of meteorological satellites designed to watch for storm development and weather conditions on Earth as well as detect hazards with its emergency beacon support and Search and Rescue Transponder. It will take ten days for the satellite to maneuver to its geostationary equatorial orbit at 35,888 km (22,300 miles). Once there, GOES-P will get a new name: GOES-15.

It will take five months for all the instruments on board to be tested and calibrated. After that, GOES-15 will be a back-up satellite, stored on-orbit and ready for activation should one of the operational GOES satellites degrade or exhaust their fuel.

The satellite is a cooperative effort between NASA and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

GOES-P launch. Image Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today.

NOAA has two operational GOES satellites: GOES-12 in the east and GOES-11 in the west. Each provides continuous observations of environmental conditions in North, Central and South America and the surrounding oceans. GOES-13 is being moved to replace GOES-12, which will be positioned to provide coverage for South America as part of the Global Earth Observing System of Systems, or GEOSS.

Thanks to Alan Walters for great images of the launch.

On a personal note, I’ve now seen three different launches – each with a different launch vehicle — in just four weeks here at Kennedy Space Center (space shuttle Endeavour, SDO on Atlas and now GOES-P on the Delta IV.) KSC is a busy spaceport, indeed!