NASA’s Orion EM-1 Crew Module Passes Critical Pressure Tests

Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians prepare the Orion pressure vessel for a series of tests inside the proof pressure cell in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians prepare the Orion pressure vessel for a series of tests inside the proof pressure cell in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The next Orion crew module in line to launch to space on NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) has passed a critical series of proof pressure tests which confirm the effectiveness of the welds holding the spacecraft structure together.

Any leaks occurring in flight could threaten the astronauts lives.

Engineers and technicians conducted the pressure tests on the Orion EM-1 pressure vessel, which was welded together at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and then shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida just 3 months ago.

The pressure vessel is the structural backbone for the vehicles that will launch American astronauts to deep space destinations.

“This is the first mission where the Orion spacecraft will be integrated with the large Space Launch System rocket. Orion is the vehicle that’s going to take astronauts to deep space,” NASA Orion program manager Scott Wilson told Universe Today.

“The tests confirmed that the weld points of the underlying structure will contain and protect astronauts during the launch, in-space, re-entry and landing phases on the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), when the spacecraft performs its first uncrewed test flight atop the Space Launch System rocket,” according to a NASA statement.

After flying to KSC on Feb 1, 2016 inside NASA’s unique Super Guppy aircraft, this “new and improved” Orion EM-1 pressure vessel was moved to the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building for final assembly by prime contractor Lockheed Martin into a flight worthy vehicle.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Since then, technicians have worked to meticulously attach hundreds of strain gauges to the interior and exterior surfaces of the vehicle to prepare for the pressure tests.

The strain gauges provide real time data to the analysts monitoring the changes during the pressurization.

Orion was moved to a test stand inside the proof pressure cell high bay and locked inside behind large doors.

Lockheed Martin engineers then incrementally increased the pressure in the proof testing cell in a series of steps over two days. They carefully monitored the results along the way and how the spacecraft reacted to the stresses induced by the pressure increases.

The maximum pressure reached was 1.25 times normal atmospheric pressure – which exceeds the maximum pressure it is expected to encounter on orbit.

“We are very pleased with the performance of the spacecraft during proof pressure testing,” said Scott Wilson, NASA manager of production operations for the Orion Program.

“The successful completion of this test represents another major step forward in our march toward completing the EM-1 spacecraft, and ultimately, our crewed missions to deep space.”

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

With the pressure testing satisfactorily completed, technicians will move Orion back to birdcage assembly stand for the “intricate work of attaching hundreds of brackets to the vessel’s exterior to hold the tubing for the vehicle’s hydraulics and other systems.”

To prepare for launch in 2018, engineers and technicians from NASA and prime contractor Lockheed Martin will spend the next two years meticulously installing all the systems amounting to over 100,000 components and gear required for flight.

This particular ‘Lunar Orion’ crew module is intended for blastoff to the Moon in 2018 on NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) atop the agency’s mammoth new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, simultaneously under development. The pressurized crew module serves as the living quarters for the astronauts comprising up to four crew members.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration.   Credit: NASA/MSFC
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

EM-1 itself is a ‘proving ground’ mission that will fly an unmanned Orion thousands of miles beyond the Moon, further than any human capable vehicle, and back to Earth, over the course of a three-week mission.

The 2018 launch of NASA’s Orion on the unpiloted EM-1 mission counts as the first joint flight of SLS and Orion, and the first flight of a human rated spacecraft to deep space since the Apollo Moon landing era ended more than 4 decades ago.

Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

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

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA Welds First Flight Section of SLS Core Stage for 2018 Maiden Launch

Space Launch System (SLS) core stage engine section finishes welding at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans for maiden flight of SLS rocket. Credit: NASA
Space Launch System (SLS) core stage engine section finishes welding at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans for maiden flight of SLS rocket. Credit: NASA

One weld at a time, the flight hardware for NASA’s mammoth new Space Launch System (SLS) booster has at last started taking shape, promising to turn years of planning and engineering discussions into reality and a rocket that will one day propel our astronauts on a ‘Journey to Mars.’

The first actual SLS flight hardware has been assembled, leaping from engineering blueprints on computer screens to individual metallic components that technicians are feeding into NASA’s gigantic “Welding Wonder” machine at the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

Technicians are bending metal and have now finished welding together the pieces of flight hardware forming the first major SLS flight component – namely the engine section that sits at the base of the SLS core stage.

The engine section of the core stage will house the four RS-25 engines that will power the maiden launch of SLS and NASA’s Orion deep space manned spacecraft in late 2018.

The core stage towers over 212 feet (64.6 meters) tall, sports a diameter of 27.6 feet (8.4 m) and stores the cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that feeds and fuels the boosters RS-25 engines.

A liquid oxygen tank confidence article for NASA's new rocket, the Space Launch System, completes final welding on the Vertical Assembly Center at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Credit: NASA/Michoud/Steven Seipel
A liquid oxygen tank confidence article for NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System, completes final welding on the Vertical Assembly Center at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: NASA/Michoud/Steven Seipel

SLS will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen. It will propel astronauts in the Orion capsule on deep space missions, first back to the Moon by around 2021, then to an asteroid around 2025 and then beyond to the Red Planet in the 2030s – NASA’s overriding and agency wide goal.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration.   Credit: NASA/MSFC
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

The SLS core stage welding work is carried out in the massive 170-foot-tall Vertical Assembly Center (VAC) at Michoud. Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage.

On Sept. 12, 2014, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveiled VAC as the world’s largest welder at Michoud.

“This rocket is a game changer in terms of deep space exploration and will launch NASA astronauts to investigate asteroids and explore the surface of Mars while opening new possibilities for science missions, as well,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Michoud.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Each of the RS-25’s engines generates some 500,000 pounds of thrust, fueled by cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. They are recycled for their original use as space shuttle main engines

For SLS they will be operating at 109% of power, compared to a routine usage of 104.5% during the shuttle era. They measure 14 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter.

The SLS weld team has been busy. Technicians have already assembled a qualification version of the engine section on the Vertical Assembly Center at Michoud. Later this year it will be shipped to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to undergo structural loads testing.

In March, they also completed welding of a liquid oxygen tank confidence article on the Vertical Assembly Center. And in February they welded the liquid hydrogen tank confidence article.

SLS core stage will be welded together from barrels and domes using the Vertical Assembly Center (VAC) at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility.  Credit: Ken Kremer/ kenkremer.com
SLS core stage will be welded together from barrels and domes using the Vertical Assembly Center (VAC) at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility. Credit: Ken Kremer/ kenkremer.com

The SLS core stage is comprised of five major structures: the forward skirt, the liquid oxygen tank, the intertank, the liquid hydrogen tank and the engine section.

The tanks are assembled by joining previously manufactured domes, rings and barrels components together in the Vertical Assembly Center by a process known as friction stir welding. The rings connect and provide stiffness between the domes and barrels.

The SLS core stage builds on heritage from NASA’s Space Shuttle Program and is based on the shuttle’s External Tank (ET). All 135 ET flight units were built at Michoud during the thirty year long shuttle program.

According to the current schedule, NASA plans to finish all welding for the core stage — including confidence, qualification and flight hardware — of the SLS-1 rocket sometime this summer.

Engineers are constructing the confidence and qualification hardware units to verify that the welding equipment and procedures work exactly as planned.

“The confidence will also be used in developing the application process for the thermal protection system, which is the insulation foam that gives the tank its orange color,” say NASA officials.

Altogether , the SLS first stage propulsion comprises the 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 maiden test flight of the SLS/Orion is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds.

Meanwhile the welded skeletal backbone for the Orion EM-1 mission recently arrived at the Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 1 for outfitting with all the systems and subsystems necessary for flight.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

NASA Test Fires SLS Flight Engine Destined to Launch Astronauts Back to the Moon

NASA engineers conduct a successfully test firing of RS-25 rocket engine No. 2059 on the A-1 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The hot fire marks the first test of an RS-25 flight engine for NASA’s new Space Launch System vehicle.  Credits: NASA/SSC
NASA engineers conduct a successful test firing of RS-25 rocket engine No. 2059 on the A-1 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The hot fire marks the first test of an RS-25 flight engine for NASA’s new Space Launch System vehicle. Credits: NASA/SSC

NASA engineers have successfully test fired the first flight engine destined to power the agency’s mammoth new SLS rocket that will launch American astronauts back to the Moon and deep space for the first time in nearly five decades.

The flight proven RS-25 powerplant engine previously flew as one of three main engines that successfully rocketed NASA’s space shuttle orbiters to space during the three decade long Space Shuttle era that ended in 2011. Continue reading “NASA Test Fires SLS Flight Engine Destined to Launch Astronauts Back to the Moon”

Obama Administration Proposes Smaller 2017 NASA Budget of $19 Billion with Big Exploration Cuts

NASA releases budget request for Fiscal Year 2017. Credit: NASA
NASA releases budget request for Fiscal Year 2017. Credit: NASA

The Obama Administration has announced its new Federal budget and is proposing to cut NASA’s Fiscal Year 2017 Budget to $19 billion by carving away significant funding for deep space exploration, whereas the overall US Federal budget actually increases to over $4.1 trillion.

This 2017 budget request amounts to almost $300 million less than the recently enacted NASA budget for 2016 and specifically stipulates deep funding cuts for deep space exploration programs involving both humans and robots, during President Obama’s final year in office.

The 2017 budget proposal would slash funding to the very programs designed to expand the frontiers of human knowledge and aimed at propelling humans outward to the Red Planet and robots to a Jovian moon that might be conducive to the formation of life.

Absent sufficient and reliable funding to keep NASA’s exploration endeavors on track, further launch delays are almost certainly inevitable – thereby fraying American leadership in space and science.

The administration is specifying big funding cuts to the ongoing development of NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket and the state of the art Orion deep space crew capsule. They are the essential first ingredients to carry out NASA’s ambitious plans to send astronauts on deep space ‘Journey to Mars’ expeditions during the 2030s.

The overall Exploration Systems Development account for human deep space missions would be slashed about 18 percent from the 2016 funding level; from $4.0 Billion to only $3.3 Billion, or nearly $700 million.

SLS alone is reduced the most by $700 million from $2.0 billion to $1,31 billion, or a whopping 35 percent loss. Orion is reduced from $1.27 billion to $1.12 billion for a loss of some $150 million.

Make no mistake. These programs are already starved for funding and the Obama administration tried to force similar cuts to these programs in 2016, until Congress intervened.

Likewise, the Obama administration is proposing a draconian cut to the proposed robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa that would surely delay the launch by at least another half a decade or more – to the late 2020s.

The Europa mission budget proposal is cut to only $49 million and the launch is postponed until the late 2020s. The mission received $175 million in funding in 2016 – amounting to a 72 percent reduction.

Furthermore there is no funding for a proposed lander and the launch vehicle changes from SLS to a far less powerful EELV – causing a year’s long increased travel time.

In order to maintain an SLS launch in approximately 2022, NASA would require a budget of about $150 million in 2017, said David Radzanowski, NASA’s chief financial officer, during a Feb. 9 teleconference with reporters.

Why is Europa worth exploring? Because Europa likely possesses a subsurface ocean of water and is a prime target in the search for life!

Overall, NASA’s hugely successful Planetary Sciences division suffers a huge and nearly 10 percent cut of $141 million to $1.51 billion – despite undeniably groundbreaking scientific successes this past year at Pluto, Ceres, Mars and more!

Altogether NASA would receive $19.025 billion in FY 2017. This totals $260 million less than the $19.285 billion appropriated in FY 2016, and thus corresponds to a reduction of 1.5 percent.

By contrast, the overall US Federal Budget will increase nearly 5 percent to approximately $4.1 trillion. Simple math demonstrates that NASA is clearly not a high priority for the administration. NASA’s share of the Federal budget comes in at less than half a cent on the dollar.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal was announced by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a televised ‘State of NASA’ address at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Virginia on Feb. 9.

Bolden did not dwell at all on the significant funding reductions for exploration.

“We are hitting our benchmarks with new exploration systems like the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion Crew Vehicle. A new consensus is emerging in the scientific and policy communities around our vision, timetable and plan for sending American astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.”

And he outlined some milestones ahead.

“We’ll continue to make great progress on the Space Launch System – SLS–rocket and we’re preparing for a second series of engine tests,” said Bolden.

“At the Kennedy Space Center, our teams will outfit Orion’s crew module with the spacecraft’s heat-shielding thermal protection systems, avionics and subsystems like electrical power storage, cabin pressure control and flight software –to name just a few.”

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration.   Credit: NASA/MSFC
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

NASA plans to launch the first combined SLS/Orion on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) in November 2018.

Indeed the Orion EM-1 pressure vessel just arrived at the Kennedy Space Center last week to completely install all the systems required for flight.

NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The launch date for the first crewed flight on EM-2 was targeted for 2021. But EM-2 is likely to slip to the right to 2023, due to insufficient funding.

Lack of funding will also force NASA to delay development of the far more capable and powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) to propel Orion on deep space missions. It will now not be available for the SLS/EM-2 launch as hoped.

The proposed huge budget cuts to SLS, Orion and Europa are certain to arose the ire of multiple members of Congress and space interest groups, who just successfully fought to increase NASA’s FY 2016 budget for these same programs in the recently passed 2016 omnibus spending bill.

“This administration cannot continue to tout plans to send astronauts to Mars while strangling the programs that will take us there,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, in a statement in response to the president’s budget proposal.

“President Obama’s FY17 budget proposal shrinks our deep space exploration programs by more than $800 million. And the administration once more proposes cuts of more than $100 million to the Planetary Science accounts, which have previously funded missions like this past year’s Pluto flyby.”

“This imbalanced proposal continues to tie our astronauts’ feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible. This is not the proposal of an administration that is serious about maintaining America’s leadership in space.”

A "true color" image of the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa as seen by the Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
A “true color” image of the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa as seen by the Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

“The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration … had hoped the request would reflect the priorities laid out for NASA in the FY16 Omnibus, for which there was broad support,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, in a statement.

“Unfortunately this was not the case. The Coalition is disappointed with the proposed reduction in funding below the FY16 Omnibus for NASA’s exploration programs. We are deeply concerned about the Administration’s proposed cut to NASA’s human exploration development programs.”

“This proposed budget falls well short of the investment needed to support NASA’s exploration missions, and would have detrimental impacts on cornerstone, game-changing programs such as the super-heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and the Orion spacecraft – the first spacecraft designed to reach multiple destinations in the human exploration of deep space.”

Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was maintained at planned levels to keep it on track for launch in 2018.

All 18 primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully installed on the backplane structure by technicians using a robotic arm (center) inside the massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
All 18 primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully installed on the backplane structure by technicians using a robotic arm (center) inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

On Dec. 18, 2015, the US Congress passed and the president signed the 2016 omnibus spending bill which funds the US government through the remainder of the 2016 Fiscal Year.

As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounted to nearly $19.3 Billion. That was an outstanding result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier in 2015.

The 2016 budget represented an increase of some $750 million above the Obama Administration’s proposed NASA budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for Fiscal Year 2016, and an increase of more than $1.2 Billion over the enacted budget for FY 2015.

Under the proposed NASA budget for Fiscal Year 2017, the fictional exploits of ‘The Martian’ will never become reality.

And the hunt for extraterrestrial life on the icy moons of the outer solar system is postponed yet again.

Scene from ‘The Martian’ starring Matt Damon as NASA astronaut Mark Watney contemplating magnificent panoramic vista while stranded alone on Mars.    Credits: 20th Century Fox
Scene from ‘The Martian’ starring Matt Damon as NASA astronaut Mark Watney contemplating magnificent panoramic vista while stranded alone on Mars. Credits: 20th Century Fox

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

Ken Kremer

This global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015.   The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).  This mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized.  Right side mosaic comprises twelve highest resolution views of Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature and shows objects as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size.  Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
This global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Right side mosaic comprises twelve highest resolution views of Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature and shows objects as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA Unveils Orion Pressure Vessel at KSC Launching on EM-1 Moon Mission in 2018

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA officials proudly unveiled the pressure vessel for the agency’s new Orion capsule destined to launch on the EM-1 mission to the Moon in 2018, after the vehicle arrived at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida last week aboard NASA’s unique Super Guppy aircraft.

This ‘new and improved’ Orion was unloaded from the Super Guppy and moved to a test stand called the ‘birdcage’ in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC where it was showcased to the media including Universe Today. Continue reading “NASA Unveils Orion Pressure Vessel at KSC Launching on EM-1 Moon Mission in 2018”

NASA’s Orion Crew Module Backbone Arrives at KSC Aboard Super Guppy for Exploration Mission-1

NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – Looking amazingly like a fish flying across the skies high above the Florida space coast, NASA’s unique Super Guppy aircraft loaded with the structural backbone for NASA’s next Orion crew module, swooped in for a landing at the Kennedy Space Center on Monday afternoon, Feb. 1.

The Super Guppy, with the recently completed pressure vessel for the Orion crew module tucked safely inside, touched down gently at about 3:45 p.m. Monday on the same runway at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) where NASA’s now retired orbiters formerly returned from space voyages. The landing strip is now operated by Space Florida. Continue reading “NASA’s Orion Crew Module Backbone Arrives at KSC Aboard Super Guppy for Exploration Mission-1”

NASA Completes Welding on Lunar Orion EM-1 Pressure Vessel Launching in 2018

Welding together of Orion EM-1 pressure vessel was completed on Jan. 13, 2016 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The pressure vessel is the primary structure of the Orion spacecraft destined for human missions to deep space and Mars.  Credits: NASA
Welding together of Orion EM-1 pressure vessel was completed on Jan. 13, 2016 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The pressure vessel is the primary structure of the Orion spacecraft destined for human missions to deep space and Mars. Credits: NASA

In a major step towards flight, engineers at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans have finished welding together the pressure vessel for the first Lunar Orion crew module that will blastoff in 2018 atop the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

This Orion is going to the Moon and back.

The 2018 launch of NASA’s Orion on an unpiloted flight dubbed Exploration Mission, or EM-1, counts as the first joint flight of SLS and Orion, and the first flight of a human rated spacecraft to deep space since the Apollo Moon landing era ended more than 4 decades ago. Continue reading “NASA Completes Welding on Lunar Orion EM-1 Pressure Vessel Launching in 2018”

NASA Receives Significant Budget Boost for Fiscal Year 2016

NASA has just received a significant boost in the agency’s current budget after both chambers of Congress passed the $1.1 Trillion 2016 omnibus spending bill this morning, Friday, Dec. 18, which funds the US government through the remainder of Fiscal Year 2016.

As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounts to nearly $19.3 Billion – an outstandingly magnificent result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier this year. Continue reading “NASA Receives Significant Budget Boost for Fiscal Year 2016”

Orion Gets Beefed Up, Silver-Metallic Thermal Protection Coating for Next Flight on EM-1

On future missions, a silver, metallic-based thermal control coating will be bonded to the Orion crew module’s back shell tiles.  Credit: NASA
On future missions, a silver, metallic-based thermal control coating will be bonded to the Orion crew module’s back shell tiles. Credit: NASA

In the wake of NASA’s supremely successful inaugural test flight of the Orion deep space capsule on the EFT-1 mission in Dec. 2014, NASA is beefing up the critical thermal protection system (TPS) that will protect astronauts from the searing heats experienced during reentry as the human rated vehicle plunges through the Earth’s atmosphere after returning from ambitious expeditions to the Moon and beyond.

Based in part on lessons learned from EFT-1, engineers are refining Orion’s heat shield to enhance the design, ease manufacturing procedures and significantly strengthen is heat resistant capabilities for the far more challenging space environments and missions that lie ahead later this decade and planned further out in the future as part of NASA’s agency-wide ‘Journey to Mars’ initiative to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

On all future flights starting with Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the Orion crew module must Continue reading “Orion Gets Beefed Up, Silver-Metallic Thermal Protection Coating for Next Flight on EM-1”

NASA Awards Contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne to Restart RS-25 Engine Production for SLS Mars Rocket

NASA took another big step on the path to propel our astronauts back to deep space and ultimately on to Mars with the long awaited decision to formally restart production of the venerable RS-25 engine that will power the first stage of the agency’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket, currently under development.

Aerojet Rocketdyne was awarded a NASA contract to reopen the production lines for the RS-25 powerplant and develop and manufacture a certified engine for use in NASA’s SLS rocket. The contract spans from November 2015 through Sept. 30, 2024.

The SLS is the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen and will loft astronauts in the Orion capsule on missions back to the Moon by around 2021, to an asteroid around 2025 and then beyond on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s – NASA’s overriding and agency wide goal. The first unmanned SLS test flight is slated for late 2018.

The core stage (first stage) of the SLS will initially be powered by four existing RS-25 engines, recycled and upgraded from the shuttle era, and a pair of five-segment solid rocket boosters that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust, making it the world’s most powerful rocket ever.

The newly awarded RS-25 engine contract to Sacramento, California based Aerojet Rocketdyne is valued at 1.16 Billion and aims to “modernize the space shuttle heritage engine to make it more affordable and expendable for SLS,” NASA announced on Nov. 23. NASA can also procure up to six new flight worthy engines for later launches.

“SLS is America’s next generation heavy lift system,” said Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of Advanced Space & Launch Programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne, in a statement.

“This is the rocket that will enable humans to leave low Earth orbit and travel deeper into the solar system, eventually taking humans to Mars.”

The lead time is approximately 5 or 6 years to build and certify the first new RS-25 engine, Van Kleek told Universe Today in an interview. Therefore NASA needed to award the contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne now so that its ready when needed.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration.   Credit: NASA/MSFC
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

The RS-25 is actually an upgraded version of former space shuttle main engines (SSMEs) originally built by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The reusable engines were used with a 100% success rate during NASA’s three decade-long Space Shuttle program to propel the now retired shuttle orbiters to low Earth orbit.

Atlantis rolls over  from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1, at right)  processing hanger to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB, at left) at KSC for the STS-135 mission.  Credit: Ken Kremer
Space Shuttles were powered by a trio of Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) now recycled and upgraded as RS-25 engines for SLS. Atlantis rolls over from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1, at right) processing hanger to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB, at left) at KSC for the STS-135 mission. Credit: Ken Kremer

Those same engines are now being modified for use by the SLS on missions to deep space starting in 2018.

But NASA only has an inventory of 16 of the RS-25 engines, which is sufficient for a maximum of the first four SLS launches only. Although they were reused numerous times during the shuttle era, they will be discarded after each SLS launch.

During a 535-second test on August 13, 2015, operators ran the Space Launch System (SLS) RS-25 rocket engine through a series of tests at different power levels to collect engine performance data on the A-1 test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.  Credit: NASA
During a 535-second test on August 13, 2015, operators ran the Space Launch System (SLS) RS-25 rocket engine through a series of tests at different power levels to collect engine performance data on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Credit: NASA

And since the engines cannot be recovered and reused as during the shuttle era, a brand new set of RS-25s will have to be manufactured from scratch.

Therefore, the engine manufacturing process can and will be modernized and significantly streamlined – using fewer part and welds – to cut costs and improve performance.

“The RS-25 engines designed under this new contract will be expendable with significant affordability improvements over previous versions,” added Jim Paulsen, vice president, Program Execution, Advanced Space & Launch Programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne. “This is due to the incorporation of new technologies, such as the introduction of simplified designs; 3-D printing technology called additive manufacturing; and streamlined manufacturing in a modern, state-of-the-art fabrication facility.”

“The new engines will incorporate simplified, yet highly reliable, designs to reduce manufacturing time and cost. For example, the overall engine is expected to simplify key components with dramatically reduced part count and number of welds. At the same time, the engine is being certified to a higher operational thrust level,” says Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The existing stock of 16 RS-25s are being upgraded for use in SLS and also being run through a grueling series of full duration hot fire test firings to certify them for flight, as I reported previously here at Universe Today.

Among the RS-25 upgrades is a new engine controller specific to SLS. The engine controller functions as the “brain” of the engine, which checks engine status, maintains communication between the vehicle and the engine and relays commands back and forth.

RS-25 test firing in progress on the A-1 test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on Aug. 13, 2015.  Credit: NASA
RS-25 test firing in progress on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on Aug. 13, 2015. Credit: NASA

Each of the RS-25’s engines generates some 500,000 pounds of thrust. They are fueled by cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. For SLS they will be operating at 109% of power, compared to a routine usage of 104.5% during the shuttle era. They measure 14 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter.

They have to withstand and survive temperature extremes ranging from -423 degrees F to more than 6000 degrees F.

The maiden test flight of the SLS is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds. It will boost an unmanned Orion on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.

NASA plans to gradually upgrade the SLS to achieve an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling the more distant missions even farther into our solar system.

The first SLS test flight with the uncrewed Orion is called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and will launch from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.

Orion’s inaugural mission dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT) was successfully launched on a flawless flight on Dec. 5, 2014 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about SLS, Orion, SpaceX, Orbital ATK Cygnus, ISS, ULA Atlas rocket, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Dec 1 to 3: “Orbital ATK Atlas/Cygnus launch to the ISS, ULA, SpaceX, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Dec 8: “America’s Human Path Back to Space and Mars with Orion, Starliner and Dragon.” Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, AAAP, Princeton University, Ivy Lane, Astrophysics Dept, Princeton, NJ; 7:30 PM.