US Heavy Lift Mars Rocket Passes Key Review and NASA Sets 2018 Maiden Launch Date

Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. Credit: NASA/MSFC
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After a thorough review of cost and engineering issues, NASA managers formally approved the development of the agency’s mammoth heavy lift rocket – the Space Launch System or SLS – which will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built and is intended to take astronauts farther beyond Earth into deep space than ever before possible – to Asteroids and Mars.

The maiden test launch of the SLS is targeted for November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version, top NASA officials announced at a briefing for reporters on Aug. 27.

On its first flight known as EM-1, the SLS will also loft an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on an approximately three week long test flight taking it beyond the Moon to a distant retrograde orbit, said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, at the briefing.

Previously NASA had been targeting Dec. 2017 for the inaugural launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida – a slip of nearly one year.

But the new Nov. 2018 target date is what resulted from the rigorous assessment of the technical, cost and scheduling issues.

This artist concept shows NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, rolling to a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center at night. SLS will be the most powerful rocket in history, and the flexible, evolvable design of this advanced, heavy-lift launch vehicle will meet a variety of crew and cargo mission needs.   Credit:  NASA/MSFC
This artist concept shows NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, rolling to a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center at night. SLS will be the most powerful rocket in history, and the flexible, evolvable design of this advanced, heavy-lift launch vehicle will meet a variety of crew and cargo mission needs. Credit: NASA/MSFC

The decision to move forward with the SLS comes after a wide ranging review of the technical risks, costs, schedules and timing known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), said Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, at the briefing. Lightfoot oversaw the review process.

“After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment,” said Lightfoot. “Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program.”

“We are making excellent progress on SLS designed for missions beyond low Earth orbit,” Lightfoot said. “We owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right.”

He said that the development cost baseline for the 70-metric ton version of the SLS was $7.021 billion starting from February 2014 and continuing through the first launch set for no later than November 2018.

Lightfoot emphasized that NASA is also building an evolvable family of vehicles that will increase the lift to an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), which will eventually enable the deep space human missions farther out than ever before into our solar system, leading one day to Mars.

“It’s also important to remember that we’re building a series of launch vehicles here, not just one,” Lightfoot said.

Blastoff of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew vehicle from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.   Credit: NASA/MSFC
Blastoff of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew vehicle from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Lightfoot and Gerstenmaier both indicated that NASA hopes to launch sooner, perhaps by early 2018.

“We will keep the teams working toward a more ambitious readiness date, but will be ready no later than November 2018,” said Lightfoot.

The next step is conduct the same type of formal KDP-C reviews for the Orion crew vehicle and Ground Systems Development and Operations programs.

The first piece of SLS flight hardware already built and to be tested in flight is the stage adapter that will fly on the maiden launch of Orion this December atop a ULA Delta IV Heavy booster during the EFT-1 mission.

The initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version of the SLS stands 322 feet tall and provides 8.4 million pounds of thrust. That’s already 10 percent more thrust at launch than the Saturn V rocket that launched NASA’s Apollo moon landing missions, including Apollo 11, and it can carry more than three times the payload of the now retired space shuttle orbiters.

The core stage towers over 212 feet (64.6 meters) tall with a diameter of 27.6 feet (8.4 m) and stores cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage.

The first stage propulsion is powered by four RS-25 space shuttle main engines and a pair of enhanced five segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) also derived from the shuttles four segment boosters.

The pressure vessels for the Orion crew capsule, including EM-1 and EFT-1, are also being manufactured at MAF. And all of the External Tanks for the space shuttles were also fabricated at MAF.

The airframe structure for the first Dream Chaser astronaut taxi to low Earth orbit is likewise under construction at MAF as part of NASA’s commercial crew program.

The first crewed flight of the SLS is set for the second launch on the EM-2 mission around the 2020/2021 time frame, which may visit a captured near Earth asteroid.

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

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Orion Deep Space Capsule Completes Most Complex Parachute Test Ahead of Maiden Launch

A test version of NASA’s Orion deep space capsule has completed its most complex and last full flight-like parachute drop test on June 25 ahead of the maiden launch on the EFT-1 mission now slated for early December 2014.

The descent test was conducted at an altitude of 35,000 feet over the Arizona desert at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground by pulling the test vehicle out of a huge C-17 cargo aircraft.

The test also included the addition of several added stress tests to check out the ability of the parachute system to compensate and examine capsule and astronaut crew survival via several potential failure modes.

For example, engineers rigged one of the main parachutes to skip the intermediate phase of the three-phase process to unfurl each of Orion’s three parachutes, called reefing.

“This tested whether one of the main parachutes could go directly from opening a little to being fully open without an intermediary step, proving the system can tolerate potential failures,” according to NASA.

The goal is to prove that that parachute system will slow Orion to ensure a safe landing speed for the astronaut crews returning from deep space missions to the Moon, Asteroids and eventually Mars.

The Orion crew module for Exploration Flight Test-1 is shown in the Final Assembly and System Testing (FAST) Cell, positioned over the service module just prior to mating the two sections together. Credit:   NASA/Rad Sinyak
The Orion crew module for Exploration Flight Test-1 is shown in the Final Assembly and System Testing (FAST) Cell, positioned over the service module just prior to mating the two sections together. Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak

“We’ve put the parachutes through their paces in ground and airdrop testing in just about every conceivable way before we begin sending them into space on Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 before the year’s done,” said Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer in a state

“The series of tests has proven the system and will help ensure crew and mission safety for our astronauts in the future.”

Orion is slated to launch on its inaugural unmanned EFT-1 test flight in December 2014 atop the mammoth, triple barreled United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.  Service module at bottom.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Service module at bottom. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

This test also marked the last time that the entire parachute sequence involving the deployment of all three 116 foot-wide main chutes will be tested before the December launch.

For some of the parachutes, this was the highest altitude drop test attempted.

“Engineers also put additional stresses on the parachutes by allowing the test version of Orion to free fall for 10 seconds, which increased the vehicle’s speed and aerodynamic pressure,” NASA noted in a statement.

The parachute deployment and unfurling can only begin after jettisoning of the spacecraft’s forward bay cover. The chutes are housed below the cover which protects the chutes until reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

The two-orbit, four- 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.

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.

At the conclusion of the 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 parachute system comprising of two drogue parachutes and a trio of main parachutes – nearly the size of a football field – will then unfurl to slow Orion down to just 20 mph for a safe splashdown and recovery by the US Navy in the Pacific Ocean.

The Orion EFT-1 mission will end with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. During the stationary recovery test of Orion at Norfolk Naval Base on Aug. 15, 2013, US Navy divers attached tow lines and led the test capsule to a flooded well deck on the USS Arlington. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com.
The Orion EFT-1 mission will end with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. During the stationary recovery test of Orion at Norfolk Naval Base on Aug. 15, 2013, US Navy divers attached tow lines and led the test capsule to a flooded well deck on the USS Arlington. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com.

Another drop test scheduled for August will test the combined failure of one drogue parachute and one main parachute, as well as new parachute design features, says NASA.

Meanwhile, Orion’s prime contractor Lockheed Martin is finishing assembly and test operations of the EFT-1 capsule inside the Operations and Checkout Facility (O & C) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) flying in December’s launch

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Curiosity, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Engineers Start Stacking Operations for Maiden Launch of NASA’s Orion Deep Space Test Capsule

The Orion crew module for Exploration Flight Test-1 is shown in the Final Assembly and System Testing (FAST) Cell, positioned over the service module just prior to mating the two sections together. Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak
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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL- Engineers have begun stacking operations for NASA’s maiden Orion deep space test capsule at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) achieving a major milestone leading to its first blastoff from the Florida Space Coast less than six months from today.

The excitement is mounting as final assembly of NASA’s Orion crew vehicle into its launch configuration started on Monday, June 9, inside the Operations and Checkout (O&C) Facility at Kennedy.

Orion will eventually carry humans to destinations far beyond low Earth orbit on new voyages of scientific discovery in our solar system.

“Orion is the next step in our journey of exploration,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot at a recent KSC media briefing.

“This mission is a stepping stone on NASA’s journey to Mars. The EFT-1 mission is so important to NASA.”

Orion is slated to launch on its inaugural unmanned test flight in December 2014 atop the mammoth, triple barreled United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket.

The main elements of the Orion spacecraft stack include the crew module (CM), service module (SM) and the launch abort system (LAS).

On Monday, technicians from Orion’s prime contractor Lockheed Martin began aligning and stacking the crew module on top of the already completed service module in the Final Assembly and System Testing (FAST) Cell in the O & C facility at KSC.

“Ballast weights were added to ensure that the crew module’s center of gravity can achieve the appropriate entry and descent performance and also ensure that the vehicle lands in the correct orientation to reduce structural impact loads,” according to Lockheed Martin.

Engineers will remain busy throughout this week continuing to work at a 24/7 pace to get Orion ready for the December liftoff.

Orion heat shield attached to the bottom of the capsule by engineers during assembly work inside the  Operations and Checkout High Bay facility at KSC.  Credit: NASA
Orion heat shield attached to the bottom of the capsule by engineers during assembly work inside the Operations and Checkout High Bay facility at KSC. Credit: NASA

The next steps involve completing the power and fluid umbilical connections between the CM and SM and firmly bolting the two modules together inside the FAST cell.

Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.  Service module at bottom.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Service module at bottom. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

An exhaustive series of electrical, avionic and radio frequency tests will follow. The team will then conduct final systems checks to confirm readiness for flight.

The LAS will then be stacked on top. The entire stack will then be rolled out to the launch pad for integration with the Delta IV Heavy rocket.

The CM/SM stacking operation was able to move forward following the successful attachment of the world’s largest heat shield onto the bottom of the CM in late May. Read my prior story – here.

“Now that we’re getting so close to launch, the spacecraft completion work is visible every day,” said Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion Program manager in a statement.

“Orion’s flight test will provide us with important data that will help us test out systems and further refine the design so we can safely send humans far into the solar system to uncover new scientific discoveries on future missions.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and science chief Astronaut John Grunsfeld discuss NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and science chief Astronaut John Grunsfeld discuss NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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!

No humans have flown beyond low Earth orbit in more than four decades since Apollo 17, NASA’s final moon landing mission launched in December 1972.

The two-orbit, four- 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.

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.

At the conclusion of the 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.

A trio of parachutes will then unfurl to slow Orion down for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

The EFT-1 mission will provide engineers with critical data about Orion’s heat shield, flight systems and capabilities to validate designs of the spacecraft, inform design decisions, validate existing computer models and guide new approaches to space systems development. All these measurements will aid in reducing the risks and costs of subsequent Orion flights before it begins carrying humans to new destinations in the solar system.

“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,” said Lightfoot.

“Orion EFT-1 is really exciting as the first step on the path of humans to Mars,” said Lightfoot. “It’s a stepping stone to get to Mars.”

“We will test the capsule with a reentry velocity of about 85% of what to expect on returning [astronauts] from Mars.”

Two of the three United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV heavy boosters for NASA’s upcoming Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission were unveiled during a media event inside the Horizontal Integration Facility at Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 17, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Two of the three United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV heavy boosters for NASA’s upcoming Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission were unveiled during a media event inside the Horizontal Integration Facility at Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 17, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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 to expand our reach into space- here.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Curiosity, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Orion schematic. Credit: NASA
Orion schematic. Credit: NASA

World’s Largest Heat Shield Attached to NASA’s Orion Crew Capsule for Crucial Fall 2014 Test Flight

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
Story updated[/caption]

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.

Coming together! Orion's heat shield and crew module in position for mating operations at NASA KSC. Credit: NASA
Coming together! Orion’s heat shield and crew module in position for mating operations at NASA KSC. Credit: NASA

Orion EFT-1 is slated to launch in December 2014 atop the mammoth, triple barreled United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket, currently the most powerful booster in America’s fleet.

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.

Orion heat shield attached to the bottom of the capsule by engineers during assembly work inside the  Operations and Checkout High Bay facility at KSC.  Credit: NASA
Orion heat shield attached to the bottom of the capsule by engineers during assembly work inside the Operations and Checkout High Bay facility at KSC. Credit: NASA

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.

Orion EFT-1 heat shield is off loaded from NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft after transport from Manchester, N.H., and arrival at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 5, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion EFT-1 heat shield is off loaded from NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft after transport from Manchester, N.H., and arrival at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 5, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

Two of the three United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV heavy boosters for NASA’s upcoming Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission were unveiled during a media event inside the Horizontal Integration Facility at Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana spoke to the media along with NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot and Tony Taliancich, ULA director of East Coast Launch Operations. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Two of the three United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV heavy boosters for NASA’s upcoming Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission were unveiled during a media event inside the Horizontal Integration Facility at Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana spoke to the media along with NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot and Tony Taliancich, ULA director of East Coast Launch Operations. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

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 KremerDelta 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 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]

Student Designed Radiation Experiment Chosen to Soar aboard Orion EFT-1 Test Flight In Dec. 2014

When NASA’s next generation human spaceflight vehicle Orion blasts off on its maiden unmanned test flight later this year, a radiation experiment designed by top American high school students will soar along and play a key role in investigating how best to safeguard the health of America’s future astronauts as they venture farther into deep space than ever before – past the Moon to Asteroids, Mars and Beyond!

The student designed radiation experiment was the centerpiece of a year-long Exploration Design Challenge (EDC) competition sponsored by NASA, Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin and the National Institute of Aerospace, and was open to high school teams across the US.

The winning experiment design came from a five-member team of High School students from the Governor’s School for Science and Technology in Hampton, Va. and was announced by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at the opening of the 2014 U.S.A Science and Engineering Festival held in Washington, DC on April 25.

Exploration Design Challenge Winning Team   NASA’s Administrator, Charles Bolden (left), President/CEO of Lockheed Martin, Marillyn Hewson (right), and astronaut Rex Walheim (back row) pose for a group photo with the winning high school team in the Exploration Design Challenge. Team ARES from the Governors School for Science and Technology in Hampton, Va. won the challenge with their radiation shield design, which will be built and flown aboard the Orion/EFT-1. The award was announced at the USA Science and Engineering Festival on April 25, 2014 at the Washington Convention Center.  Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani
Orion Exploration Design Challenge Winning Team from Hampton,Va
NASA’s Administrator, Charles Bolden (left), President/CEO of Lockheed Martin, Marillyn Hewson (right), and astronaut Rex Walheim (back row) pose for a group photo with the winning high school team in the Exploration Design Challenge. Team ARES from the Governors School for Science and Technology in Hampton, Va. won the challenge with their radiation shield design, which will be built and flown aboard the Orion/EFT-1. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

The goal of the EDC competition was to build and test designs for shields to minimize radiation exposure and damaging human health effects inside NASA’s new Orion spacecraft slated to launch into orbit during the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) pathfinding mission in December 2014. See experiment design photo herein.

This radiation shielding experiment designed by High School students from the Governor’s School for Science and Technology in Hampton, Va., was chosen as the winner of the Exploration Design Challenge contest and will fly aboard NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission in December 2014. Credit: Lockheed Martin
This radiation shielding experiment designed by High School students from the Governor’s School for Science and Technology in Hampton, Va., was chosen as the winner of the Exploration Design Challenge contest and will fly aboard NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission in December 2014. Credit: Lockheed Martin

During the EFT-1 flight, Orion will fly through the dense radiation field that surrounds the Earth in a protective shell of electrically charged ions – known as the Van Allen Belt – that begins 600 miles above Earth.

No humans have flown through the Van Allen Belt in more than 40 years since the Apollo era.

Team ARES from Hampton VA was chosen from a group of five finalist teams announced in March 2014.

“This is a great day for Team ARES – you have done a remarkable job,” said NASA Administrator Bolden.

“I really want to congratulate all of our finalists. You are outstanding examples of the power of American innovation. Your passion for discovery and the creative ideas you have brought forward have made us think and have helped us take a fresh look at a very challenging problem on our path to Mars.”

Since Orion EFT-1 will climb to an altitude of some 3,600 miles, the mission offers scientists the opportunity to understand how to mitigate the level of radiation exposure experienced by the astronaut crews who will be propelled to deep space destinations beginning at the end of this decade.

Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The student teams used a simulation tool named OLTARIS, the On- Line Tool for the Assessment of Radiation in Space, used by NASA scientists and engineers to study the effects of space radiation on shielding materials, electronics, and biological systems.

Working with mentors from NASA and Lockheed Martin, each team built prototypes and used the OLTARIS program to calculate how effective their designs – using several materials at varying thicknesses – were at shielding against radiation in the lower Van Allen belt.

“The experiment is a Tesseract Design—slightly less structurally sound than a sphere, as the stresses are located away from the cube on the phalanges. The materials and the distribution of the materials inside the tesseract were determined through research and simulation using the OLTARIS program,” Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Allison Rakes told me.

The students conducted research to determine which materials were most effective at radiation shielding to protect a dosimeter housed inside – an instrument used for measuring radiation exposure.

“The final material choices and thicknesses are (from outermost to innermost): Tantalum (.0762 cm/ .030 in), Tin (.1016 cm/ .040 in), Zirconium (.0762 cm/ .030 in), Aluminum (.0762 cm/ .030 in), and Polyethylene (9.398 cm/ 3.70 in),” according to Rakes.

At the conclusion of the EFT-1 flight, the students will use the measurement to determine how well their design protected the dosimeter.

But first Team ARES needs to get their winning proposal ready for flight. They will work with a NASA and Lockheed Martin spacecraft integration team to have the experimental design approved, assembled and installed into Orion’s crew module.

All the students hard work will pay off this December when Lockheed Martin hosts Team ARES at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to witness the liftoff of their important experiment inside Orion atop the mammoth triple barreled Delta IV Heavy booster.

46 teams from across the country submitted engineering experiment proposals to the EDC aimed at stimulating students to work on a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) project that tackles one of the most significant dangers of human space flight — radiation exposure.

“The Exploration Design Challenge has already reached 127,000 students worldwide – engaging them in real-world engineering challenges and igniting their imaginations about the endless possibilities of space discovery,” said Lockheed Martin Chairman, President and CEO Marillyn Hewson.

The two-orbit, four- 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.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, 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
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

NASA Unveils Orion’s Powerful Delta IV Heavy Rocket Boosters for Dec. 2014 Blastoff

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – Production and assembly of virtually all of the key hardware elements for NASA’s eagerly anticipated Orion EFT-1 uncrewed test flight are either complete or nearing completion at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral.

Two of the three first stage boosters comprising the mammoth Delta IV Heavy rocket that will propel Orion to high Earth orbit have arrived at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, and were unveiled this week by top NASA managers at a media briefing attended by Universe Today.

The triple barreled Delta IV Heavy rocket is currently the most powerful rocket in America’s fleet and the only one capable of launching the Orion EFT-1 capsule to its intended orbit of 3600 miles altitude above Earth.

Due to urgent US national security requirements, the maiden blastoff of the unmanned Orion pathfinder capsule – that will one day send humans back to the Moon and beyond Earth’s realm – has just been postponed about three months from September to December 2014 in order to make way for the accelerated launch of recently declassified US Air Force Space Surveillance satellites – as I reported here.

Two of the three United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV heavy boosters for NASA’s upcoming Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission were unveiled during a media event inside the Horizontal Integration Facility at Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 17, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Two of the three United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV heavy boosters for NASA’s upcoming Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission were unveiled during a media event inside the Horizontal Integration Facility at Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 17, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The center and starboard side boosters recently arrived at the Cape aboard a barge from Decatur, Alabama where they were manufactured by United Launch Alliance (ULA).

The remaining port side booster and the Centaur upper stage are due to be shipped by ULA to Cape Canaveral in April.

“It’s great to see Orion, the next step in our journey of exploration, said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “And it’s very exciting to see the engines integrated into the booster.”

“This mission is a stepping stone on NASA’s journey to Mars. The EFT-1 mission is so important to NASA. We will test the capsule with a reentry velocity of about 85% of what expect on returning [astronauts] 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.”

Despite the EFT-1 launch postponement, Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana said technicians for prime contractor Lockheed Martin are pressing forward and continue to work around the clock at the Kennedy Space Center (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 former shuttle commander 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.”

“It’s great to see all the hardware and boosters that will take Orion to orbit.”

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
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

Universe Today also confirmed with Cabana that NASA will absolutely not delay any Orion processing and assembly activities.

“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 standing besides the Delta IV boosters inside the ULA Horizontal Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral.

Side view of two Delta IV heavy boosters powered by RS-68 engines inside Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral for NASA’s upcoming Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Side view of two Delta IV heavy boosters powered by RS-68 engines inside Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral for NASA’s upcoming Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The two-orbit, four- 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.

Although the mission will only last a few hours it will be high enough to send the vehicle plunging back into the atmosphere and a Pacific Ocean splashdown to test the craft and its heat shield at deep-space reentry speeds of 20,000 mph and endure temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit – like those of the Apollo moon landing missions.

The EFT-1 mission will provide engineers with critical data about Orion’s heat shield, flight systems and capabilities to validate designs of the spacecraft, inform design decisions, validate existing computer models and guide new approaches to space systems development. All these measurements will aid in reducing the risks and costs of subsequent Orion flights before it begins carrying humans to new destinations in the solar system.

“Orion EFT-1 is really exciting as the first step on the path of humans to Mars,” said Lightfoot. It’s a stepping stone to get to Mars.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Chang’e-3, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention, NY on April 12/13 and at Washington Crossing State Park, NJ on April 6. Also evenings at the Quality Inn Kennedy Space Center, Titusville, FL, March 24/25 and March 29/30

Ken Kremer

Delta IV Heavy boosters and Ken Kremer of Universe Today reporting from inside Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral on NASA’s upcoming Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Delta IV Heavy boosters and Ken Kremer of Universe Today reporting from inside Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral on NASA’s upcoming Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

US Air Force Space Surveillance Satellite Bumps NASA’s long awaited Orion Launch to Dec. 2014

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
Stroy updated[/caption]

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – The urgent need by the US Air Force to launch a pair of previously classified Space Situational Awareness satellites into Earth orbit this year on an accelerated schedule has bumped the inaugural blastoff of NASA’s highly anticipated Orion pathfinder manned capsule from September to December 2014.

It’s a simple case of US national security taking a higher priority over the launch of NASA’s long awaited unmanned Orion test flight on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission.

The EFT-1 flight is NASA’s first concrete step towards sending human crews on Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) missions since the finale of the Apollo moon landing era in December 1972.

Final assembly of Orion is underway at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

The very existence of the covert Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, or GSSAP, was only recently declassified during a speech by General William Shelton, commander of the US Air Force Space Command.

Shelton made the announcement regarding the top secret GSSAP program during a Feb. 21 speech about the importance of space and cyberspace at the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium and Technology exposition, in Orlando, FL.

US national security requirements forced NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission to swap launch slots with the GSSAP satellites – which were originally slated to launch later in 2014.

An artist concept shows Orion as it will appear in space for the Exploration Flight Test-1 attached to a Delta IV rockets Centaur 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

Since both spacecraft will blast off from the same pad at Complex 37 and atop Delta rockets manufactured by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a decision on priorities had to be made – and the military won out.

At a Cape Canaveral media briefing with Delta first stage boosters on Monday, March 17, Universe Today confirmed the order and payloads on the upcoming Delta IV rockets this year.

“The firing sequence for the Delta’s is the USAF Global Positioning System GPS 2F-6 [in May], GSSAP [in September] and Orion EFT-1 [in December], Tony Taliancich, ULA Director of East Coast Launch Operations, told me.

Universe Today also confirmed with the top management at KSC that NASA will absolutely not delay any Orion processing and assembly activities.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Despite the EFT-1 postponement, technicians for prime contractor Lockheed Martin are pressing forward and continue to work around the clock at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) so that NASA’s Orion spacecraft can still meet the original launch window that opens in mid- September 2014 – in case of future adjustments to the launch schedule sequence.

“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,” Bob Cabana, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and former shuttle commander, told me.

Shelton stated that two of the GSSAP military surveillance satellites would be launched on the same launch vehicle later this year.

“GSSAP will present a significant improvement in space object surveillance, not only for better collision avoidance, but also for detecting threats,” Shelton said.

“GSSAP will bolster our ability to discern when adversaries attempt to avoid detection and to discover capabilities they may have, which might be harmful to our critical assets at these higher altitudes.”

According to a new GSSAP online fact sheet, the program will be a space-based capability operating in near-geosynchronous orbit, supporting U.S. Strategic Command space surveillance operations as a dedicated Space Surveillance Network sensor.

“Some of our most precious satellites fly in that orbit – one cheap shot against the AEHF [Advanced Extremely High Frequency] constellation would be devastating,” added Shelton. “Similarly, with our Space Based Infrared System, SBIRS, one cheap shot creates a hole in our environment. GSSAP will bolster our ability to discern when adversaries attempt to avoid detection and to discover capabilities they may have which might be harmful to our critical assets at these higher altitudes.”

GSSAP will allow more accurate tracking and characterization of man-made orbiting objects, uniquely contribute to timely and accurate orbital predictions, enhance knowledge of the geosynchronous orbit environment, and further enable space flight safety to include satellite collision avoidance.

The GSSAP satellites were covertly developed by Orbital Sciences and the Air Force.

Two additional follow on GSSAP satellites are slated for launch in 2016.

“We must be prepared as a nation to succeed in increasingly complex and contested space and cyber environments, especially in these domains where traditional deterrence theory probably doesn’t apply,” Shelton explained. “We can’t afford to wait … for that catalyzing event that will prod us to action.”

Bob Cabana, director of Kennedy Space Center, discusses Orion EFT-1 with the media at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 17. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Bob Cabana, director of Kennedy Space Center, discusses Orion EFT-1 with the media at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 17. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion is NASA’s first spaceship designed to carry human crews on long duration flights to deep space destinations beyond low Earth orbit, such as asteroids, the Moon, Mars and beyond.

The inaugural flight of Orion on the unmanned Exploration Flight Test – 1 (EFT-1) mission had been on schedule to blast off from the Florida Space Coast in mid September 2014 atop a Delta 4 Heavy booster, Scott Wilson, NASA’s Orion Manager of Production Operations at KSC, told Universe Today during a recent interview at KSC.

The two-orbit, four- 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.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Chang’e-3, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention, NY on April 12/13 and at Washington Crossing State Park, NJ on April 6. Also evenings at the Quality Inn Kennedy Space Center, Titusville, FL, March 24/25 and March 29/30

Ken Kremer

NASA Pressing Towards Fall 2014 Orion Test Flight – Service Module Complete

Engineers prepare Orion’s service module for installation of the fairings that will protect it during launch this fall when Orion launches on its first mission. The service module, along with its fairings, is now complete. Credit: NASA
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2014 is the Year of Orion.

Orion is NASA’s next human spaceflight vehicle destined for astronaut voyages beyond Earth and will launch for the first time later this year on its inaugural test flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The space agency is rapidly pressing forward with efforts to finish building the Orion crew module slated for lift off this Fall on the unmanned Exploration Flight Test – 1 (EFT-1) mission.

NASA announced today that construction of the service module section is now complete.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and science chief Astronaut John Grunsfeld discusses NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and science chief Astronaut John Grunsfeld discuss NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Orion module stack is comprised of three main elements – the Launch Abort System (LAS) on top, the crew module (CM) in the middle and the service module (SM) on the bottom.

With the completion of the service module, two thirds of the Orion EFT-1 mission stack are now compete.

LAS assembly was finalized in December.

The crew module is in the final stages of construction and completion is due by early spring.

Orion is being manufactured at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) inside a specially renovated high bay in the Operations and Checkout Building (O&C).

“We are making steady progress towards the launch in the fall,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at a media briefing back dropped by the Orion service module inside the O&C facility.

“It’s very exciting because it signals we are almost there getting back to deep space and going much more distant than where we are operating in low Earth orbit at the ISS.”

“And I’m very excited for the young people who will have an opportunity to fly Orion,” Bolden told me in the O&C.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion under terms of a contract from NASA.

Orion is NASA’s first spaceship designed to carry human crews on long duration flights to deep space destinations beyond low Earth orbit, such as asteroids, the Moon, Mars and beyond.

The inaugural flight of Orion on the unmanned Exploration Flight Test – 1 (EFT-1) mission is on schedule to blast off from the Florida Space Coast in mid September 2014 atop a Delta 4 Heavy booster, Scott Wilson, NASA’s Orion Manager of Production Operations at KSC, told Universe Today during a recent interview at KSC.

Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Service Module at bottom. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orion is currently under development as NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle to replace the now retired space shuttle.

Concurrently, NASA’s commercial crew initiative is fostering the development of commercial space taxi’s to ferry US astronauts to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).

Get the details in my interview with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk about his firm’s Dragon ‘space taxi’ launching aboard the SpaceX upgraded Falcon 9 boosterhere.

The two-orbit, four- 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.

The crew module rests atop the service module, similar to the Apollo Moon landing program architecture.

Orion service module assembly in the Operations and Checkout facility at Kennedy Space Center.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion service module assembly in the Operations and Checkout facility at Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The SM provides in-space power, propulsion capability, attitude control, thermal control, water and air for the astronauts.

For the EFT-1 flight, the SM is not fully outfitted. It is a structural representation simulating the exact size and mass.

In a significant difference from Apollo, Orion is equipped with a trio of massive fairings that encase the SM and support half the weight of the crew module and the launch abort system during launch and ascent. The purpose is to improve performance by saving weight from the service module, thus maximizing the vehicles size and capability in space.

All three fairings are jettisoned at an altitude of 100 miles up when they are no longer need to support the stack.

The fairings that will protect it during launch are added to Orion’s service module at the Operations and Checkout facility at Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: NASA
The fairings that will protect it during launch are added to Orion’s service module at the Operations and Checkout facility at Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA

On the next Orion flight in 2017, the service module will be manufactured built by the European Space Agency (ESA).

“When we go to deep space we are not going alone. It will be a true international effort including the European Space Agency to build the service module,” said Bolden.

The new SM will be based on components from ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) which is an unmanned resupply spacecraft used to deliver cargo to the ISS.

A key upcoming activity for the CM is installation of the thermal protection system, including the heat shield.

The heat shield is the largest one ever built. It arrived at KSC last month loaded inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft while I observed. Read my story – here.

The 2014 EFT-1 test flight was only enabled by the extremely busy and productive year of work in 2013 by the Orion EFT-1 team.

“There were many significant Orion assembly events ongoing on 2013” said Larry Price, Orion deputy program manager at Lockheed Martin, in an interview with Universe Today at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver.

“This includes the heat shield construction and attachment, power on, installing the plumbing for the environmental and reaction control system, completely outfitting the crew module, attached the tiles and building the service module which finally leads to mating the crew and service modules (CM & SM) in early 2014,” Price told me.

Orion was originally planned to send American astronauts back to Moon – until Project Constellation was cancelled by the Obama Administration.

Now with Orion moving forward and China’s Yutu rover trundling spectacularly across the Moon, one question is which country will next land humans on the Moon – America or China?

Read my story about China’s manned Moon landing plans – here.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Chang’e-3, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

Orion schematic. Credit: NASA
Orion schematic. Credit: NASA
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden meets the media including Ken Kremer/Universe Today to discuss NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives and Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Urijan Poerink
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden meets the media including Ken Kremer/Universe Today to discuss NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives and Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Urijan Poerink

Space Science Stories to Watch in 2014

There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, “May you live in interesting times,” and 2013 certainly fit the bill in the world of spaceflight and space science. The past year saw spacecraft depart for Mars, China land a rover on the Moon, and drama in low Earth orbit to repair the International Space Station. And all of this occurred against a landscape of dwindling budgets, government shutdowns that threatened launches and scientific research, and ongoing sequestration.

But it’s a brave new world out there. Here are just a few space-related stories that we’ll watching in 2014:

An artist's conception of ESA's Rosetta and Philae spacecraft approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA-J. Huart, 2013)
An artist’s conception of ESA’s Rosetta and Philae spacecraft approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA-J. Huart, 2013)

Rosetta to Explore a Comet: On January 20, 2014, the European Space Agency will hail its Rosetta spacecraft and awaken it for its historic encounter with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko later this year in August. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet. Launched way back in 2004, Rosetta promises to provide the cosmic encounter of the year.

The October 19th, 2014 passage of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Springs past Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The October 19th, 2014 passage of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Springs past Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A1 Siding Springs vs. Mars: A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that comet C/2013 A1 Siding Springs would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled out the chance of impact, the comet will still pass 41,300 kilometres from the Red Planet, just outside the orbit of its outer moon Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the +7th magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will a fleet of spacecraft both on and above the Martian surface.

A recent tweet from @NewHorizons_2015, a spacecraft that launched just weeks before Twitter in 2006.
A recent tweet from @NewHorizons_2015, a spacecraft that, ironically, launched just weeks before Twitter in 2006.

Spacecraft En Route to Destinations: Though no new interplanetary missions are set to depart the Earth in 2014, there are lots of exciting missions currently underway and headed for worlds yet to be explored. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is headed towards its encounter with 1 Ceres in February 2015. Juno is fresh off its 2013 flyby of the Earth and headed for orbital insertion around Jupiter in August 2016. And in November of this year, New Horizons will switch on permanently for its historic encounter with Pluto and its retinue of moons in July 2015.    

LUX & the Hunt for Dark Matter: It’s all around us, makes up the bulk of the mass budget of the universe, and its detection is THE name of the game in modern astrophysics. But just what is dark matter? Some tantalizing– and hotly contested –data came out late last year from of an unusual detector deep underground near Lead, South Dakota. The Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX) looks for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) interacting with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX requires its unique locale to block out interference from incoming cosmic rays. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology, whether or not detections by LUX prove to be conclusive.   

The LIGO Livingston Observatory. (Photos by Author)
The LIGO Livingston Observatory. (Photos by Author)

 The Hunt for Gravity Waves: Another story to watch may come out of Caltech’s twin gravity wave observatories when its Advanced LIGO system goes online later this year. Established in 2002, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is comprised of two detectors: one in Hanford Washington and one outside of Livingston, Louisiana. The detectors look for gravity waves generated by merging binary pulsars and black holes. Though no positive detections have yet been made, Advanced LIGO with boast ten times the sensitivity and may pave the way for a new era of gravitational wave astronomy.

An artist concept of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center).
An artist concept of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center).

 Spacecraft reach Mars: 2014 is an opposition year for the Red Planet, and with it, two new missions are slated to begin operations around Mars: India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) also known as Mangalyaan-1 is slated to enter orbit on September 24th, and NASA’s MAVEN or Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission is set to arrive just 2 days earlier on September 22nd. MOM and MAVEN will join the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and  the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in the quest to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Space Tourism Takes Off: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo passed a key milestone test flight in late 2013. Early 2014 may see the first inaugural flights by Virgin Galactic out of the Mohave Spaceport and the start of sub-orbital space tourism. SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. Hey, room for any space journalists in there? On standby, maybe?

The First Flight of Orion: No, it’s not the first flight of the proposed sub-light interplanetary spacecraft that was to be propelled by atomic bombs… but the September launch of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) will be a  short uncrewed flight and test the capsule during reentry after two orbits. It’s to be seen if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV will occur by the end of the decade.

Launch of the SpaceX CRS-2 mission to the ISS in early 2013. (Photo by author).
Launch of the SpaceX CRS-2 mission to the ISS in early 2013. (Photo by author)

 The First Flight of the Falcon Heavy: 2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, starting with the launch of Thaicom-6 out of Cape Canaveral this Friday on January 3rd. SpaceX is now “open for business,” and expect to see them conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.… more to come!

The Sunjammer Space Sail: An interesting mission moves in 2014 towards a January 2015 launch: LGarde’s Sunjammer solar sail. Sunjammer will test key solar sail technologies as well as deliver the Solar Wind Analyzer (SWAN) and the MAGIC Magnetometer to the L1 Earth-Sun Lagrange point. Sunjammer will launch on a Falcon-9 rocket and deploy a 1200 square metre solar sail weighing only 32 kilograms. This will be a great one for ground satellite-spotters to track as well as it heads out!

Gaia Opens for Business: Launched on a brilliant night-shot out of the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19th of last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its astrometry mission in 2014, creating most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy. But we also anticipate exciting new discoveries due to spin-offs from this mission, to include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more.

And as in years previous, the quest to explore brave new worlds will be done against the backdrop of tightening budgets. Just like in household budgets, modern spaceflight is a continual conflict between what we would wish and what we can afford. In recent years, no mission seems to be safe, and there have even been occasional congressional rumblings to pull the plug on missions already underway. Interesting times, indeed… 2014 promises to be an extraordinary time in spaceflight and space science, both on Earth and beyond.

Heat Shield for 2014 Orion Test Flight Arrives at Kennedy Aboard NASA’s Super Guppy

Orion EFT-1 heat shield is off loaded from NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft after transport from Manchester, N.H., and arrival at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 5, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Story updated[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The heat shield crucial to the success of NASA’s 2014 Orion test flight has arrived at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) aboard the agency’s Super Guppy aircraft – just spacious enough to fit the precious cargo inside.

Orion is currently under development as NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle to replace the now retired space shuttle. The heat shields advent is a key achievement on the path to the spacecraft’s maiden flight.

“The heat shield which we received today marks a major milestone for Orion. It is key to the continued assembly of the spacecraft,” Scott Wilson, NASA’s Orion Manager of Production Operations at KSC, told Universe Today during an interview at the KSC shuttle landing facility while the offloading was in progress.

“It will be installed onto the bottom of the Orion crew module in March 2014.”

The inaugural flight of Orion on the unmanned Exploration Flight Test – 1 (EFT-1) mission is scheduled to blast off from the Florida Space Coast in mid September 2014 atop a Delta 4 Heavy booster, Wilson told me.

Orion EFT-1 heat shield moved off from NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft after arrival at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 5, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion EFT-1 heat shield moved off from NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft after arrival at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 5, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The heat shield was flown in from Textron Defense Systems located near Boston, Massachusetts and offloaded from the Super Guppy on Dec. 5 as Universe Today observed the proceedings along with top managers from NASA and Orion’s prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

“The Orion heat shield is the largest of its kind ever built. Its wider than the Apollo and Mars Science Laboratory heat shields,” Todd Sullivan told Universe Today at KSC. Sullivan is the heat shield senior manager at Lockheed Martin.

The state-of-the-art Orion crew capsule will ultimately enable astronauts to fly to deep space destinations including the Moon, Asteroids, Mars and beyond – throughout our solar system.

The heat shield was one of the last major pieces of hardware needed to complete Orion’s exterior structure.

“Production of the heat shields primary structure that carries all the loads began at Lockheed Martin’s Waterton Facility near Denver,” said Sullivan. The titanium composite skeleton and carbon fiber skin were manufactured there to give the heat shield its shape and provide structural support during landing.

“It was then shipped to Textron in Boston in March,” for the next stage of assembly operations, Sullivan told me.

“They applied the Avcoat ablater material to the outside. That’s what protects the spacecraft from the heat of reentry.”

Textron technicians just completed the final work of installing a fiberglass-phenolic honeycomb structure onto the heat shield skin. Then they filled each of the honeycomb’s 320,000 cells with the ablative material Avcoat.

Orion EFT-1 heat shield hauled off NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft after arrival at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 5, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion EFT-1 heat shield hauled off NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft after arrival at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 5, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Each cell was X-rayed and sanded to match Orion’s exacting design specifications.

“Now we have about two and a half months of work ahead to prepare the Orion crew module before the heat shield is bolted on and installed,” Sullivan explained.

The Avcoat-treated shell will shield Orion from the extreme heat of nearly 4000 degrees Fahrenheit it experiences during the blazing hot temperatures it experiences as it returns at high speed to Earth. The ablative material will wear away as it heats up during the capsules atmospheric re-entry thereby preventing heat from being transferred to the rest of the capsule and saving it and the human crew from utter destruction.

“Testing the heat shield is one of the prime objectives of the EFT-1 flight,” Wilson explained.

“The Orion EFT-1 capsule will return at over 20,000 MPH,” Wilson told me. “That’s about 80% of the reentry speed experienced by the Apollo capsule after returning from the Apollo moon landing missions.”

“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.”

Hoisting Orion heat shield at KSC for transport to Orion crew module in the Operations and Checkout Building. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hoisting Orion heat shield at KSC for transport to Orion crew module in the Operations and Checkout Building. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The two-orbit, four- 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.

“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.

Orion managers pose with heat shield at KSC; Scott Wilson, NASA Orion deputy manager of Production Operations; Todd Sullivan, heat shield senior manager at Lockheed Martin; Stu Mcclung, NASA Orion deputy manager of Production Operations. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion managers pose with heat shield at KSC; Scott Wilson, NASA Orion deputy manager of Production Operations; Todd Sullivan, heat shield senior manager at Lockheed Martin; Stu Mcclung, NASA Orion deputy manager of Production Operations. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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 2017 on the EM-1 mission and human crewed missions thereafter.

“I’m very proud of the work we’ve done, excited to have the heat shield here [at KSC] and anxious to get it installed,” Sullivan concluded.

Stay tuned here for continuing Orion, Chang’e 3, LADEE, MAVEN and MOM news and Ken’s reports from on site at Cape Canaveral & the Kennedy Space Center press site.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Orion, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers, Chang’e 3, SpaceX, and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Dec 10: “Antares ISS Launch from Virginia, Mars and SpaceX Mission Update”, Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

Dec 11: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars”, “LADEE & Antares ISS Launches from Virginia”, Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Franklin Institute, Phila, PA, 8 PM

Departure of NASA’s Super Guppy from the shuttle landing runway at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 5, 2013 after removal of Orion heat shield.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Takeoff of NASA’s Super Guppy from the shuttle landing runway at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 5, 2013 after removal of Orion heat shield. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com