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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asteroid Capture in Progress
Asteroid Capture in Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

Orion takes shape for 2014 Test Flight

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA is picking up the pace of assembly operations for the Orion capsule, America’s next crew vehicle destined to carry US astronauts to Asteroids, the Moon, Mars and Beyond.

Just over a year from now in September 2014, NASA will launch Orion on its first test flight, an unpiloted mission dubbed EFT-1.

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, expert work crews are already hard at work building a myriad of Orion’s key components, insuring the spacecraft takes shape for an on time liftoff.

Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.  Powerful quartet of LAS abort motors will fire in case of launch emergency to save astronauts lives.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Powerful quartet of LAS abort motors will fire in case of launch emergency to save astronauts lives. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Universe Today is reporting on NASA’s progress and I took an exclusive behind the scenes tour inside KSC facilities to check on Orion’s progress.

In 2014 Orion will blast off to Earth orbit atop a mammoth Delta IV Heavy booster, the most powerful booster in America’s rocket fleet following the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters in 2011.

On later flights Orion will blast off on the gargantuan Space Launch System (SLS), the world’s most powerful rocket which is simultaneously under development by NASA.

At the very top of the Orion launch stack sits the Launch Abort System (LAS) – a critically important component to ensure crew safety, bolted above the crew module.

In case of an emergency situation, the LAS is designed to ignite within milliseconds to rapidly propel the astronauts inside the crew module away from the rocket and save the astronauts lives.

The LAS is one of the five primary components of the flight test vehicle for the EFT-1 mission.

Astronaut hatch swung open on Orion capsule mock up joined to base of Launch Abort System (LAS) emergency escape tower.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Astronaut hatch swung open on Orion capsule mock up joined to base of Launch Abort System (LAS) emergency escape tower. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Prior to any launch from the Kennedy Space Center, all the rocket components are painstakingly attached piece by piece.

Final assembly for EFT-1 takes place inside the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

To get a head start on assembly with the launch date relentlessly approaching, technicians have been practicing lifting and stacking techniques for several months inside the VAB transfer aisle using the 6 ton LAS pathfinder replica and mock ups of the Orion crew and service modules.

This 175 ton hook and crane system used to maneuver the Orion crew capsule, Service Module and Launch Abort System (LAS) components inside the Vehicle Assembly Building the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This 175 ton hook and crane system used to maneuver the Orion crew capsule, Service Module and Launch Abort System (LAS) components inside the Vehicle Assembly Building the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Conducting the practice sessions now with high fidelity replicas serves multiple purposes, including anticipating and solving problems now before the real equipment arrives, as well as to keep the teams proficient between the years long launch gap between the finale of the Space Shuttle program and the start up of the Orion/SLS deep space exploration program.

Delicate maneuvers like lifting, rolling, rotating, stacking, gimballing and more of heavy components requiring precision placements is very demanding and takes extensive practice to master.

There is no margin for error. Human lives hang in the balance.

Technicians at work practicing de-stacking operations with full size mockups of the Orion capsule and Launch Abort System components inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: /Jim Grossmann
Technicians at work practicing de-stacking operations with full size mockups of the Orion capsule and Launch Abort System components inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

The same dedicated crews that assembled NASA’s Space Shuttles inside the VAB for 3 decades are assembling Orion. And they are using the same equipment.

“The breakover, taking the LAS from horizontal to vertical, is not as easy as it sometimes seems, but the VAB guys are exceptional, they are really good at what they do so they really didn’t have a problem,” says Douglas Lenhardt, who is overseeing the Orion mock-up and operations planning for the Ground Systems Development and Operations program, or GSDO.

Simulations with computer models are extremely helpful, but real life situations can be another matter.

“Real-life, things don’t always work perfectly and that’s why it really does help having a physical model,” says Lenhardt.

One day our astronauts will climb through an Orion hatch like this for America’s ‘Return to the Moon’ - following in the eternal footsteps of Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
One day our astronauts will climb through an Orion hatch like this for America’s ‘Return to the Moon’ – following in the eternal footsteps of Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

Orion soars skyward in 2014 for the first time. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion soars skyward in 2014 for the first time.
Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orion Capsule Accelerating to 2014 Launch and Eventual Asteroid Exploration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

…………….

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

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

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

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

NASA: Reaches for New Heights – Greatest Hits Video

Video Caption: At NASA, we’ve been a little busy: landing on Mars, developing new human spacecraft, going to the space station, working with commercial partners, observing the Earth and the Sun, exploring our solar system and understanding our universe. And that’s not even everything.Credit: NASA

Check out this cool action packed video titled “NASA: Reaching for New Heights” – to see NASA’s ‘Greatest Hits’ from the past year

The 4 minute film is a compilation of NASA’s gamut of Robotic Science and Human Spaceflight achievements to explore and understand Planet Earth here at home and the heavens above- ranging from our Solar System and beyond to the Galaxy and the vast expanse of the Universe.

Image caption: Planets and Moons in perspective. Credit: NASA

The missions and programs featured include inspiringly beautiful imagery from : Curiosity, Landsat, Aquarius, GRACE, NuSTAR, GRAIL, Dawn at Asteroid Vesta, SDO, X-48C Amelia, Orion, SLS, Apollo, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, Boeing CST-100, Commercial Crew, Hurricane Sandy from the ISS, Robonaut and more !

And even more space exploration thrills are coming in 2013 !

Ken Kremer

IMG_3760a_SpaceX launch 22 May 2012

Image caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off on May 22, 2012 with Dragon cargo capsule from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on the first commercial mission to the International Space Station. The next launch is set for March 1, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer

Orion assemblage on track for 2014 Launch

Image caption: Orion EFT-1 crew cabin construction ongoing inside the Structural Assembly Jig at the Operations and Checkout Building (O & C) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). This is the inaugural space-bound Orion vehicle due to blastoff from Florida in September 2014 atop a Delta 4 Heavy rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASA is thrusting forward and making steady progress toward launch of the first space-bound Orion crew capsule -designed to carry astronauts to deep space. The agency aims for a Florida blastoff of the uncrewed Exploration Flight Test-1 mission (EFT-1) in September 2014 – some 20 months from now – NASA officials told Universe Today.

I recently toured the Orion spacecraft up close during an exclusive follow-up visit to check the work in progress inside the cavernous manufacturing assembly facility in the Operations and Checkout Building (O & C) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Vehicle assemblage is run under the auspices of prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems Corporation.

A lot of hardware built by contractors and subcontractors from all across the U.S. is now arriving at KSC and being integrated with the EFT-1 crew module (CM), said Jules Schneider, Orion Project manager for Lockheed Martin at KSC, during an interview with Universe Today beside the spacecraft at KSC.

“Everyone is very excited to be working on the Orion. We have a lot of work to do. It’s a marathon not a sprint to build and test the vehicle,” Schneider explained to me.

My last inspection of the Orion was at the official KSC unveiling ceremony on 2 July 2012 (see story here). The welded, bare bones olive green colored Orion shell had just arrived at KSC from NASA’s Michoud facility in New Orleans. Since then, Lockheed and United Space Alliance (USA) technicians have made significant progress outfitting the craft.

Workers were busily installing avionics, wiring, instrumentation and electrical components as the crew module was clamped in place inside the Structural Assembly Jig during my follow-up tour. The Jig has multiple degrees of freedom to move the capsule and ease assembly work.

“Since July and to the end of 2012 our primary focus is finishing the structural assembly of the crew module,” said Schneider.

“Simultaneously the service module structural assembly is also ongoing. That includes all the mechanical assembly inside and out on the primary structure and all the secondary structure including the bracketry. We are putting in the windows and gussets, installing the forward bay structure leading to the crew tunnel, and the aft end CM to SM mechanism components. We are also installing secondary structures like mounting brackets for subsystem components like avionics boxes and thruster pods as parts roll in here.”


Image caption: Window and bracket installation on the Orion EFT-1 crew module at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer

“A major part of what we are doing right now is we are installing a lot of harnessing and test instrumentation including alot of strain gauges, accelerometers, thermocouples and other gauges to give us data, since that’s what this flight is all about – this is a test article for a test flight.

“There is a huge amount of electrical harnesses that have to be hooked up and installed and soldered to the different instruments. There is a lot of unique wiring for ground testing, flight testing and the harnesses that will be installed later along with the plumbing. We are still in a very early stage of assembly and it involves alot of very fine work,” Schneider elaborated. Ground test instrumentation and strain gauges are installed internally and externally to measure stress on the capsule.

Construction of the Orion service module is also moving along well inside the SM Assembly Jig at an adjacent work station. The SM engines will be mass simulators, not functional for the test flight.

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

The European Space Agency (ESA) has been assigned the task of building the fully functional SM to be launched in 2017 on NASA’s new SLS rocket on a test flight to the moon and back.

Although Orion’s construction is proceeding apace, there was a significant issue during recent proof pressure testing at the O & C when the vehicle sustained three cracks in the aft bulkhead of the lower half of the Orion pressure vessel.

“The cracks did not penetrate the pressure vessel skin, and the structure was holding pressure after the anomaly occurred,” Brandi Dean, a NASA Public Affairs Officer told me. “The failure occurred at 21.6 psi. Full proof is 23.7 psi.”

“A team composed of Lockheed Martin and NASA engineers have removed the components that sustained the cracks and are developing options for repair work. Portions of the cracked surface were removed and evaluated, letting the team eliminate problems such as material contamination, manufacturing issues and preexisting defects from the fault tree. The cracks are in three adjacent, radial ribs of this integrally machined, aluminum bulkhead,” Dean stated.

Image caption: NASA graphic of 3 cracks discovered during recent proof pressure testing. Credit: NASA

The repairs will be subjected to rigorous testing to confirm their efficacy as part of the previously scheduled EFT-1 test regimen.

A great deal of work is planned over the next few months including a parachute drop test just completed this week and more parachute tests in February 2013. The heat shield skin and its skeleton are being manufactured at a Lockheed facility in Denver, Colorado and shipped to KSC. They are due to be attached in January 2013 using a specialized tool.

“In March 2013, we’ll power up the crew module at Kennedy for the first time,” said Dean.

Orion will soar to space atop a mammoth Delta IV Heavy booster rocket from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Construction and assembly of the triple barreled Delta IV Heavy is the pacing item upon which the launch date hinges, NASA officials informed me.

Following the forced retirement of NASA’s space shuttles, the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy is now the most powerful booster in the US arsenal and heretofore has been used to launch classified military satellites. Other than a specialized payload fairing built for Orion, the rocket will be virtually identical to the one that boosted a super secret U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite to orbit on June 29, 2012 (see my launch story here).

Orion will fly in an unmanned configuration during the EFT-1 test flight and orbit the Earth two times – reaching an altitude of 3,600 miles which is 15 times farther than the International Space Station’s orbital position. The primary objective is to test the performance of Orion’s heat shield at the high speeds and searing temperatures generated during a return from deep space like those last experienced in the 1970’s by the Apollo moon landing astronauts.

The EFT-1 flight is not the end of the road for this Orion capsule.

“Following the EFT-1 flight, the Orion capsule will be refurbished and reflown for the high altitude abort test, according to the current plan which could change depending on many factors including the budget,” explained Schneider.

“NASA will keep trying to do ‘cool’ stuff”, Bill Gerstenmaier, the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Space Flight, told me.

Stay tuned – Everything regarding human and robotic spaceflight depends on NASA’s precarious budget outlook !

Ken Kremer

Image caption: Orion EFT-1 crew cabin assemblage inside the Structural Assembly Jig at the Operations and Checkout Building (O & C) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC); Jules Schneider, Orion Project Manager for Lockheed Martin and Ken Kremer. Credit: Ken Kremer

‘NASA Johnson Style’ Parodies ‘Gangnam Style’ Music Video

Check this out and get in the groove to enjoy some really cool fun from NASA

NASA interns and NASA astronauts have joined forces to create a very humorous and entertaining music video parody of the “Gangnam Style” mega hit by international pop sensation PSY – It’s called “NASA Johnson Style” and its New!

A team of interns from NASA’s Johnson Space Center (pictured below) in Houston created original lyrics, convinced several initially incredulous astronauts to dance along and shot the video at several NASA centers. Then they integrated the whole kit and kaboodle with the “Gangnam Style” instrumental track. Scotty would be proud of the intricate engineering demanded to pull this off – but where are the tribbles !

Image caption: Mike Massimino (center) poses with the intern video team after filming at JSC. Photo credit: Nicole Cloutier

The video features a fun loving crew of NASA astronauts including Mike Massimino, who deftly repaired the Hubble Space Telescope twice among other things, Clayton Anderson and Tracy Caldwell Dyson who lived and worked for many months aboard the International Space Station, and Mike Coats, a Shuttle commander and the retiring Director of the Johnson Space Center.

The video also features actual footage from the International Space Station , Apollo Moonwalks, Curiosity on Mars, Dawn at Vesta, Houston Mission control, the SLS and Orion Crew vehicle as well as real research labs and scientists here on Earth. So it’s fun and meant to be educational as well.

“Gangnam Style” by the Korean singing star PSY is the most popular YouTube music ever and is enjoyed by millions more every day since it was released last summer. It has spawned numerous other parodies.

And in case you missed last summer’s mega hit parody straight from the Red Planet – click on this: “We’re NASA and We Know It (Mars Curiosity)” – Note: this is NOT a NASA production

Now, turn up the volume and enjoy some light hearted cheer in this Holiday season.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Colossal Crawler Gets Souped-Up for SLS

Shuttle Discovery riding one of KSC’s crawler-transporters to Launch Pad 39B in June 2005 (NASA)

One of NASA’s two iconic crawler-transporters — the 2,750-ton monster vehicles that have delivered rockets from Saturns to Shuttles to launch pads at Kennedy Space Center for nearly half a century — is getting an upgrade in preparation for NASA’s new future in space flight.

131 feet long, 113 feet wide and with a breakneck top speed of 2 mph (they’re strong, not fast!) NASA’s colossal crawler-transporters are the only machines capable of hauling fully-fueled rockets the size of office buildings safely between the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center. Each 3.5-mile one-way trip takes around 6 hours.

Now that the shuttles are retired and each in or destined for its permanent occupation as a relic of human spaceflight, the crawler-transporters have not been doing much crawling or transporting down the 130-foot-wide, Tennessee river-rock-coated lanes at KSC… but that’s soon to change.

According to an article posted Sept. 5 on TransportationNation.org, crawler 2 (CT-2) is getting a 6-million-pound upgrade, bringing its carrying capacity from 12 million pounds to 18 million. This will allow the vehicle to bear the weight of a new generation of heavy-lift rockets, including NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

Read: SLS: NASA’s Next Big Thing

In addition to carrying capacity CT-2 will also be getting new brakes, exhausts, hydraulics and computer systems.

Part of a $2 billion plan to upgrade Kennedy Space Center for a future with both NASA and commercial spaceflight partners, the crawler will have two of its onboard power engines replaced — but the original generators that power its eight enormous tread belts will remain, having been thoroughly inspected and deemed to be “in pristine condition” according to the article by Matthew Peddie.

When constructed in the early 1960s, the crawler-transporters were the largest tracked vehicles ever made and cost $14 million — that’s about $100 million today. But were they to be built from scratch now they’d likely cost even more, as the US “is no longer the industrial powerhouse it was in the 1960s.”

Still, it’s good to know that these hardworking behemoths will keep bringing rockets to the pad, even after the shuttles have been permanently parked.

“When they built the crawler, they overbuilt it, and that’s a great thing because it’s able to last all these years. I think it’s a great machine that could last another 50 years if it needed to,” said Bob Myers, systems engineer for the crawler.

You can see some really great full panoramas of the CT-2 at the NASATech website, where photographer John O’Connor took three different panoramic views while the transporter was inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC in Highbay 1. There’s even a pan close-up of the giant cleats that move the transporter.

Read the full article on TransportationNation.org here, and find out more about the crawler-transporters here and here.

Since the Apollo years the transporters have traveled an accumulated 2,526 miles, about the same distance as a one-way highway trip from KSC to Los Angeles.

Inset image: the Apollo 11 Saturn V, tower and mobile launch platform atop the crawler-transporter during rollout on May 20, 1969. (NASA) Bottom image: NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the site of the CT-2 upgrade in August 2012. Each of the crawler’s 456 tread shoes weighs about one ton. (NASA)

1st Space-bound Orion Crew Capsule Unveiled at Kennedy

Image caption: Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida welcomes the newly arrived Orion crew capsule at a Kennedy Space Center unveiling ceremony on July 2, 2012 and proclaims Mars is NASA’s long term goal for human exploration. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASA’s first space-bound Orion crew capsule was officially unveiled at a welcoming ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center on Monday (July 2) to initiate a process that the agency hopes will finally put Americans back on a path to exciting destinations of exploration beyond low Earth orbit for the first time in 40 years since Apollo and spawn a new era in deep space exploration by humans – starting with an initial uncrewed test flight in 2014.

Over 450 invited guests and dignitaries attended the Orion arrival ceremony at Kennedy’s Operations and Checkout Building (O & C) to mark this watershed moment meant to reignite human exploration of the cosmos.

“This starts a new, exciting chapter in this nation’s great space exploration story,” said Lori Garver, NASA deputy administrator. “Today we are lifting our spirits to new heights.”

Image caption: Posing in front of NASA’s 1st Orion crew module set for 2014 liftoff are; KSC Director Bob Cabana, Mark Geyer, NASA Orion Program manager, Sen. Bill Nelson (FL), Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator. Credit: Ken Kremer

This Orion capsule is due to lift off on a critical unmanned test flight in 2014 atop a powerful Delta 4 Heavy booster – like the Delta rocket just launched on June 29.

The bare bones, olive green colored aluminum alloy pressure shell arrived at KSC last week from NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility where the vessel was assembled and the final welds to shape it into a capsule were just completed. Every space shuttle External Tank was built at Michoud in New Orleans.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida has spearheaded the effort in Congress to give NASA the goal and the funding to build the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and the means to launch it atop the most powerful rocket ever built – a Saturn V class booster dubbed the SLS or Space Launch System – to destinations in deep space that have never been explored before.

“Isn’t this beautiful?” said Nelson as he stood in front of the incomplete vessel, motioned to the crowd and aimed his sights high. “I know there are a lot of people here who can’t wait to get their hands and their fingers on this hardware.

“And ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to Mars!” proclaimed Nelson.

“Without question, the long-term goal of our space program, human space program right now is the goal of going to Mars in the decade of the 2030s.”

“We still need to refine how we’re going to go there, we’ve got to develop a lot of technologies, we’ve got to figure out how and where we’re going to stop along the way. The president’s goal is an asteroid in 2025. But we know the Orion capsule is a critical part of the system that is going to take us there.”


Image caption: The green colored aluminum alloy pressure vessel arrived at KSC last week and will be outfitted with all the instrumentation required for spaceflight. Launch is slated for 2014 atop Delta 4 Heavy booster from pad 37 on Cape Canaveral. Crew hatch and tunnel visible at center. Credit: Ken Kremer

Orion is the most advanced spacecraft ever designed.

Over about the next 18 months, engineers and technicians at KSC will install all the systems and gear – such as avionics, instrumentation, flight computers and the heat shield – required to transform this empty shell into a functioning spacecraft.

The 2014 uncrewed flight, called Exploration Flight Test-1 or EFT-1, will be loaded with a wide variety of instruments to evaluate how the spacecraft behaves during launch, in space and then through the searing heat of reentry.

The 2 orbit 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. Although the mission will only last a few hours it will be able high enough to send the vehicle plunging back into the atmosphere at over 20.000 MPH to test the craft and its heat shield at deep-space re-entry speeds approaching those of the Apollo moon landing missions.

Image caption: Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida discusses the new arrived Orion capsule with NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver while surrounded by a horde of reporters at the Kennedy Space Center unveiling ceremony on July 2, 2012. Credit: Ken Kremer

Orion arrived at Kennedy on nearly the same day that the center opened its door 50 years ago.

“As KSC celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to celebrate than by having the very first Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle here at KSC,” said KSC Center Director Robert Cabana, a former shuttle commander, at the O & C ceremony.

“The future is here, now, and the vehicle we see here today is not a Powerpoint chart. It’s a real spacecraft, moving toward a test flight in 2014.”

In 2017, an Orion capsule will lift off on the first SLS flight. The first crewed Orion will launch around 2021 and orbit the moon, Lori Garver told me in an interview at KSC.

But the entire schedule and construction of the hardware is fully dependent on funding from the federal government.

In these lean times, there is no guarantee of future funding and NASA’s budget has already been significantly chopped – forcing numerous delays and outright mission cancellations on many NASA projects; including the outright termination of NASA next Mars rover and multi-year delays to the commercial crew program and prior plans to launch a crewed Orion to orbit as early as 2013.

Image caption: Veteran NASA Astronaut Rex Walheim discusses Orion with Universe Today. Walheim flew on the last space shuttle mission (STS-135). Credit: Ken Kremer

Astronaut Rex Walheim, who flew on the final space shuttle mission (STS-135) and has had key role in developing Orion, said the Orion capsule can be the principal spacecraft for the next 30 years of human exploration of the solar system.

“It’s the first in a line of vehicles that can take us where we’ve never gone before,” Walheim said. “It’ll be a building block approach, we’ll have to have a lander and a habitation module, but we can get there.”


Image caption: John Karas, Lockheed Martin Vice President for Human Space Flight poses with Orion and discusses the upcoming 2014 EFT-1 test flight with Universe Today. Lockheed is the prime contractor for Orion. Credit: Ken Kremer

“Personally I am thrilled to be working on the next vehicle that will take us beyond low Earth orbit, said John Karas, Lockheed Martin Vice President for Human Space Flight. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor to build Orion.

“Orion will carry humans to destinations never explored before and change human’s perspectives”

“Folks here are ready to start working on the EFT-1 mission. In about 18 months, EFT-1 will fly on the next Delta 4 Heavy flight.

“I can’t wait to go deeper into the cosmos!” Karas exclaimed.

Ken Kremer

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July 13/14: Free Public Lectures about NASA’s Mars and Planetary Exploration, the Space Shuttle, SpaceX , Orion and more by Ken Kremer at the Adirondack Public Observatory in Tupper Lake, NY.

Drop Test for Orion Crew Capsule’s New Parachutes

NASA successfully conducted a drop test of the Orion crew vehicle’s entry, descent and landing parachutes in preparation for the vehicle’s first orbital flight test, currently scheduled for 2014. Orion is the crew vehicle that NASA is building to bring astronauts to new destinations in space. It will be launched on the new rocket being built, the Space Launch System. Unlike the space shuttle, Orion will have emergency abort capability, and won’t be landing on a runway. Instead, the vehicle will splash down in the ocean, like the US capsules in the 1960’s and 70’s. NASA is working to make sure the crews will have a safe re-entry and landing, and the parachute tests help to ensure that.
Continue reading “Drop Test for Orion Crew Capsule’s New Parachutes”

Orion Crew Capsule Targeted for 2014 Leap to High Orbit

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NASA is on course to make the highest leap in human spaceflight in nearly 4 decades when an unmanned Orion crew capsule blasts off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a high stakes, high altitude test flight in early 2014.

A new narrated animation (see below) released by NASA depicts the planned 2014 launch of the Orion spacecraft on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission to the highest altitude orbit reached by a spaceship intended for humans since the Apollo Moon landing Era.

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated spacecraft and designed for missions to again take humans to destinations beyond low Earth orbit- to the Moon, Mars, Asteroids and Beyond to deep space.


Orion Video Caption – Orion: Exploration Flight Test-1 Animation (with narration by Jay Estes). This animation depicts the proposed test flight of the Orion spacecraft in 2014. Narration by Jay Estes, Deputy for flight test integration in the Orion program.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems is making steady progress constructing the Orion crew cabin that will launch atop a Delta 4 Heavy booster rocket on a two orbit test flight to an altitude of more than 3,600 miles and test the majority of Orion’s vital vehicle systems.

The capsule will then separate from the upper stage, re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at a speed exceeding 20,000 MPH, deploy a trio of huge parachutes and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of California.

Lockheed Martin is responsible for conducting the critical EFT-1 flight under contract to NASA.

Orion will reach an altitude 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) circling in low orbit some 250 miles above Earth and provide highly valuable in-flight engineering data that will be crucial for continued development of the spaceship.

Orion Exploration Flight Test One Overview. Credit: NASA

“This flight test is a challenge. It will be difficult. We have a lot of confidence in our design, but we are certain that we will find out things we do not know,” said NASA’s Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer.

“Having the opportunity to do that early in our development is invaluable, because it will allow us to make adjustments now and address them much more efficiently than if we find changes are needed later. Our measure of success for this test will be in how we apply all of those lessons as we move forward.”

Lockheed Martin is nearing completion of the initial assembly of the Orion EFT-1 capsule at NASA’s historic Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, which for three decades built all of the huge External Fuel Tanks for the NASA’s Space Shuttle program.

In May, the Orion will be shipped to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for final assembly and eventual integration atop the Delta 4 Heavy rocket booster and launch from Space Launch Complex 37 at nearby Cape Canaveral. The Delta 4 is built by United Launch Alliance.

The first integrated launch of an uncrewed Orion is scheduled for 2017 on the first flight of NASA’s new heavy lift rocket, the SLS or Space Launch System that will replace the now retired Space Shuttle orbiters

Continued progress on Orion, the SLS and all other NASA programs – manned and unmanned – is fully dependent on the funding level of NASA’s budget which has been significantly slashed by political leaders of both parties in Washington, DC in recent years.

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March 24 (Sat): Free Lecture by Ken Kremer at the New Jersey Astronomical Association, Voorhees State Park, NJ at 830 PM. Topic: Atlantis, the End of Americas Shuttle Program, Orion, SpaceX, CST-100 and the Future of NASA Human & Robotic Spaceflight