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

If everything goes according to their plan - Lockheed Martin would have their Orion spacecraft launch on a Delta IV Heavy rocket. Image Credit: NASA

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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

“Space Factory of the Future” Preparing for Orion Spacecraft for Flight

The Orion spacecraft is depicted here circling Earth's nearest celestial neighbor, the moon. Image Credit: NASA

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Lockheed Martin has been working overtime to get the Orion spacecraft ready for its first mission, which officials say could be as early as 2013, depending on Congress’ final decision for NASA’s future and budget. Tools and procedures are being checked out to see that they work as advertised for both the spacecraft as well as assembly procedures and manufacturing for building future capsules.

The Orion spacecraft will be assembled and integrated on site in the Operations & Checkout (O & C) building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. By doing this, both time and money can be saved as it will cut down on transportation costs and logistical issues.

“The unique benefit of this complete on-site operation is that we will build the spacecraft and then move it directly onto the launch vehicle at KSC, which saves the government transportation costs associated with tests and checkout prior to launch,” said Lockheed Martin Orion Deputy Program Manager for production operations Richard Harris. “This capability also facilitates the KSC workforce transition efforts by providing new job opportunities for those employees completing their shuttle program assignments.”

The current plan calls for Orion to serve to transport astronauts to the International Space Station and perhaps an eventual mission beyond low-Earth-orbit (LEO), but Orion’s future rests with Congress’ upcoming decision on NASA’s future budget. The House Science and Technology Committee announced Thursday a compromise between the House and Senate versions of NASA’s budget, but it is unclear when a final vote may take place.

In the meantime, the O & C building has been transformed in the past couple years into what is being called “the space factory of the future.” This was accomplished by the combined effort of both Lockheed Martin as well as Space Florida, the state’s aerospace development organization. The work was done to create a state-of-the-art facility for spacecraft production and innovation.

NASA's Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building has recently been refurbished to accomocate the Orion spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA

Changes made to the O&C include 90,000 square feet of air-bearing floor space, paperless work stations, a portable clean room system, and specialized lifting/lowering/ support tools designed by United Space Alliance (USA). Specially designed air-bearing pallets will allow a small crew to maneuver hardware across the floor. The building renovation also incorporates energy-saving electrical systems which will help to further lower costs.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the Orion Project and heads the team that includes numerous subcontractors and small businesses working at facilities in 28 states. Additionally, the program works with more than 500 small businesses across the U.S. to provide the needed supplies that make the Orion Project a reality.

Source: Lockheed Martin