Assembly Completed on Powerful Delta IV Rocket Boosting Maiden Orion Capsule Test Flight

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – Assembly of the powerful Delta IV rocket boosting the pathfinder version of NASA’s Orion crew capsule on its maiden test flight in December has been completed.

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle that will eventually carry America’s astronauts beyond Earth on voyages venturing farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars and other destinations in our Solar System.

The state-of-the-art Orion spacecraft is scheduled to launch on its inaugural uncrewed mission, dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), in December 2014 atop the Delta IV Heavy rocket. It replaces NASA’s now retired space shuttle orbiters.

The triple barreled Delta IV Heavy is currently the most powerful rocket in America’s fleet following the retirement of the NASA’s Space Shuttle program.

Engineers from the rocket’s manufacturer – United Launch Alliance (ULA) – took a major step forward towards Orion’s first flight when they completed the integration of the three primary core elements of the rockets first stage with the single engine upper stage.

These three RS-68 engines will power each of the attached Delta IV Heavy Common Booster Cores (CBCs) the will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
These three RS-68 engines will power each of the attached Delta IV Heavy Common Booster Cores (CBCs) that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

All of the rocket integration work and preflight processing took place inside ULA’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF), at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Universe Today recently visited the Delta IV booster during an up close tour inside the HIF facility last week where the rocket was unveiled to the media in a horizontally stacked configuration. See my Delta IV photos herein.

The HIF building is located at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37), on Cape Canaveral, a short distance away from the launch pad where the Orion EFT-1 mission will lift off on Dec. 4.

“The day-to-day processing is performed by ULA,” said Merri Anne Stowe of NASA’s Fleet Systems Integration Branch of the Launch Services Program (LSP), in a NASA statement.

“NASA’s role is to keep a watchful eye on everything and be there to help if any issues come up.”

The first stage is comprised of a trio of three Delta IV Common Booster Cores (CBCs).

Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Each CBC measures 134 feet in length and 17 feet in diameter. They are equipped with an RS-68 engine powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants producing 656,000 pounds of thrust. Together they generate 1.96 million pounds of thrust.

This past spring I visited the HIF after the first two CBCs arrived by barge from their ULA assembly plant in Decatur, Alabama, located about 20 miles west of Huntsville.

The first CBC booster was attached to the center booster in June. The second one was attached in early August, according to ULA.

“After the three core stages went through their initial inspections and processing, the struts were attached, connecting the booster stages with the center core,” Stowe said. “All of this takes place horizontally.”

The Delta IV cryogenic second stage testing and attachment was completed in August and September. It measures 45 feet in length and 17 feet in diameter. It is equipped with a single RL10-B-2 engine, that also burns liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant and generates 25,000 pounds of thrust.

“The hardware for Exploration Flight Test-1 is coming together well,” Stowe noted in a NASA statement.

“We haven’t had to deal with any serious problems. All of the advance planning appears to be paying off.”

This same Delta IV upper stage will be used in the Block 1 version of NASA’s new heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS).

Be sure to read my recent article detailing the ribbon cutting ceremony opening the manufacture of the SLS core stage at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, LA. The SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built by humans, exceeding that of the iconic Saturn V rocket that sent humans to walk on the surface of the Moon.

Wide view of the new welding tool at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Wide view of the new welding tool at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The Delta IV rocket will be rolled out to the SLC-37 Cape Canaveral launch pad this week.
Assembly of the Orion EFT-1 capsule and stacking atop the service module was also completed in September at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

I was also on hand at KSC when the Orion crew module/service module (CM/SM) stack was rolled out on Sept. 11, 2014, on a 36-wheel transporter from its high bay assembly facility in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building.

NASA’s completed Orion EFT 1 crew module loaded on wheeled transporter during move to Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s completed Orion EFT 1 crew module loaded on wheeled transporter during move to Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) on Sept. 11, 2014, at the Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

It was moved about 1 mile to its next stop on the way to SLC-37 – the KSC fueling facility named the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHFS). Read my Orion move story here.

The two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

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

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Orion EFT 1 crew module departs Neil Armstrong Operation and Checkout Building on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, beginning the long journey to the launch pad and planned liftoff on Dec. 4, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s Orion EFT 1 crew module departs Neil Armstrong Operation and Checkout Building on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, beginning the long journey to the launch pad and planned liftoff on Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Space journalists including Ken Kremer/Universe Today pose with the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Space journalists including Ken Kremer/Universe Today pose with the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA Unveils World’s Largest Welder to Build World’s Most Powerful Rocket

MICHOUD ASSEMBLY FACILITY, NEW ORLEANS, LA – NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveiled the world’s largest welder to start construction of the world’s most powerful rocket – NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket – at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014.

Administrator Bolden was personally on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the base of the huge welder at Michoud’s Vertical Assembly Center (VAC).

The welder is now officially open for business and will be used to manufacture the core stage of the SLS, NASA’s mammoth heavy lift rocket that is intended to take humans to destinations far beyond Earth and farther into deep space than ever before possible – to Asteroids and Mars.

“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 on Sept. 12.

“The Road to Mars starts at Michoud,” said Bolden, at the welding tool ceremony attended by Universe Today.

The SLS is designed to launch astronaut crews aboard NASA’s next generation Orion deep space capsule concurrently under development.

The state-of-the-art welding giant stands 170 feet tall and 78 feet wide. It completes a world-class welding toolkit that will be used to assemble pieces of the SLS core stage including domes, rings and barrels that have already been manufactured. It will tower over 212 feet (64.6 meters) tall and sports a diameter of 27.6 feet (8.4 m).

Wide view of the new welding tool at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Wide view of the new welding tool at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The core stage stores cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage.

The SLS core stage builds on heritage from NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.

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

As I reported recently, NASA managers formally approved the development of the agency’s mammoth Mars rocket after a thorough review of cost and engineering issues.

“The SLS Program continues to make significant progress,” said Todd May, SLS program manager.

“The core stage and boosters have both completed critical design review, and NASA recently approved the SLS Program’s progression from formulation to development. This is a major milestone for the program and proof the first new design for SLS is mature enough for production.”

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

Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. Credit: NASA/MSFC
Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. Credit: NASA/MSFC

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss NASA’s SLS heavy lift rocket at ribbon cutting ceremony unveiling world’s largest rocket welder at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. We're standing at the welding tools base in the Vertical Assembly Center. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss NASA’s SLS heavy lift rocket at ribbon cutting ceremony unveiling world’s largest rocket welder at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. We’re standing at the welding tools base in the Vertical Assembly Center. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Assembly Complete for NASA’s First Orion Crew Module Blasting off Dec. 2014

This past weekend technicians completed assembly of NASA’s first Orion crew module at the agency’s Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O & C) Facility at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, signifying a major milestone in the vehicles transition from fabrication to full scale launch operations.

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle and is scheduled to launch on its maiden uncrewed mission dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) in December 2014. It replaces the now retired space shuttle orbiters.

The black Orion crew module (CM) sits stacked atop the white service module (SM) in the O & C high bay photos, shown above and below.

The black area is comprised of the thermal insulating back shell tiles. The back shell and heat shield protect the capsule from the scorching heat of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere at excruciating temperatures reaching over 4000 degrees Fahrenheit (2200 C) – detailed in my story here.

Technicians and engineers from prime contractor Lockheed Martin subsequently covered the crew module with protective foil. The CM/SM stack was then lifted and moved for the installation of the Orion-to-stage adapter ring that will mate them to the booster rocket.

Lifting and stacking NASA’s first completed Orion crew and service modules at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in early September 2014.   Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak
Lifting and stacking NASA’s first completed Orion crew and service modules at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in early September 2014. Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak

At the conclusion of the EFT-1 flight, the detached Orion capsule plunges back and hits the Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 MPH (32,000 kilometers per hour).

“That’s about 80% of the reentry speed experienced by the Apollo capsule after returning from the Apollo moon landing missions,” Scott Wilson, NASA’s Orion Manager of Production Operations at KSC, told me during an interview at KSC.

The next step in Orion’s multi stage journey to the launch pad follows later this week with transport of the CM/SM stack to another KSC facility named the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHFS) for fueling, before moving again for the installation of the launch abort system (LAS) in yet another KSC facility.

Stacking NASA’s first completed Orion crew and service modules at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in early September 2014.   Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak
Stacking NASA’s first completed Orion crew and service modules at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in early September 2014. Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak

The Orion EFT-1 test flight is slated to soar to space atop the mammoth, triple barreled United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Dec. 4, 2014 .

The state-of-the-art Orion spacecraft will carry America’s astronauts on voyages venturing farther into deep space than ever before – past the Moon to Asteroids, Mars and Beyond!

NASA’s first completed Orion crew and service modules being moved inside the High Bay at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in early September 2014.   Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak
NASA’s first completed Orion crew and service modules being moved inside the High Bay at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in early September 2014. Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak

NASA is simultaneously developing a monster heavy lift rocket known as the Space Launch System or SLS, that will eventually launch Orion on its deep space missions.

The maiden SLS/Orion launch on the Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) unmanned test flight is now scheduled for no later than November 2018 – read my story here.

SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built.

The two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

Orion service module assembly in the Operations and Checkout facility at Kennedy Space Center - now renamed in honor of Neil Armstrong.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion service module assembly in the Operations and Checkout facility at Kennedy Space Center – now renamed in honor of Neil Armstrong. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The EFT-1 mission will test the systems critical for EM-1 and future human missions to deep space that follow.

The Orion EFT-1 capsule has come a long way over the past two years of assembly.

The bare bones, welded shell structure of the Orion crew cabin arrived at KSC in Florida from NASA’s Michoud facility in New Orleans in June 2012 and was officially unveiled at a KSC welcoming ceremony on 2 July 2012, attended by this author.

“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,” said Jules Schneider, Orion Project manager for Lockheed Martin at KSC, during an exclusive 2012 interview with Universe Today inside the Orion clean room at KSC.

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

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

Ken Kremer

Orion crew module back shell tiles and panels inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building high bay at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orion crew module back shell tiles and panels inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building high bay at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Orion EFT-1 capsule under construction 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, Universe Today.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orion EFT-1 capsule under construction 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, Universe Today. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Heat Protecting Back Shell Tiles Installed on NASA’s Orion EFT-1 Spacecraft Set for Dec. 2014 Launch

Fabrication of the pathfinding version of NASA’s Orion crew capsule slated for its inaugural unmanned test flight in December is entering its final stages at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) launch site in Florida.

Engineers and technicians have completed the installation of Orion’s back shell panels which will protect the spacecraft and future astronauts from the searing heat of reentry and scorching temperatures exceeding 3,150 degrees Fahrenheit.

Orion is scheduled to launch on its maiden uncrewed mission dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) test flight in December 2014 atop the mammoth, triple barreled United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Inside the Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, technicians dressed in clean-room suits have installed a back shell tile panel onto the Orion crew module and are checking the fit next to the middle back shell tile panel. Preparations are underway for Exploration Flight Test-1, or EFT-1. Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis
Inside the Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, technicians dressed in clean-room suits have installed a back shell tile panel onto the Orion crew module and are checking the fit next to the middle back shell tile panel. Preparations are underway for Exploration Flight Test-1, or EFT-1. Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

The cone-shaped back shell actually has a rather familiar look since its comprised of 970 black thermal protection tiles – the same tiles which protected the belly of the space shuttles during three decades and 135 missions of returning from space.

However, Orion’s back shell tiles will experience temperatures far in excess of those from the shuttle era. Whereas the space shuttles traveled at 17,000 miles per hour, Orion will hit the Earth’s atmosphere at some 20,000 miles per hour on this first flight test.

The faster a spacecraft travels through Earth’s atmosphere, the more heat it generates. So even though the hottest the space shuttle tiles got was about 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit, the Orion back shell could get up to 3,150 degrees, despite being in a cooler area of the vehicle.

Engineers have also rigged Orion to conduct a special in flight test to see just how vulnerable the vehicle is to the onslaught of micrometeoroid orbital debris.

Two one-inch-wide holes have been drilled into tiles on Orion’s back shell to simulate micrometeoroid orbital debris damage.  Sensors on the vehicle will record how high temperatures climb inside the hole during Orion’s return through Earth’s atmosphere following its first flight in December.  Credit:  NASA
Two one-inch-wide holes have been drilled into tiles on Orion’s back shell to simulate micrometeoroid orbital debris damage. Sensors on the vehicle will record how high temperatures climb inside the hole during Orion’s return through Earth’s atmosphere following its first flight in December. Credit: NASA

Even tiny particles can cause immense and potentially fatal damage at high speed by punching a hole through the back shell tiles and possibly exposing the spacecrafts structure to temperatures high than normal.

“Below the tiles, the vehicle’s structure doesn’t often get hotter than about 300 degrees Fahrenheit, but if debris breeched the tile, the heat surrounding the vehicle during reentry could creep into the hole it created, possibly damaging the vehicle,” says NASA.

The team has run done numerous modeling studies on the effect of micrometeoroid hits. Now it’s time for a real world test.

Therefore engineers have purposely drilled a pair of skinny 1 inch wide holes into two 1.47 inches thick tiles to mimic damage from a micrometeoroid hit. The holes are 1.4 inches and 1 inch deep and are located on the opposite side of the back shell from Orion’s windows and reaction control system jets, according to NASA.

“We want to know how much of the hot gas gets into the bottom of those cavities,” said Joseph Olejniczak, manager of Orion aerosciences, in a NASA statement.

“We have models that estimate how hot it will get to make sure it’s safe to fly, but with the data we’ll gather from these tiles actually coming back through Earth’s atmosphere, we’ll make new models with higher accuracy.”

Orion crew module back shell tiles and panels inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building high bay at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orion crew module back shell tiles and panels inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building high bay at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The data gathered will help inform the team about the heat effects from potential damage and possible astronaut repair options in space.

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

The state-of-the-art spacecraft will carry America’s astronauts on voyages venturing farther into deep space than ever before – past the Moon to Asteroids, Mars and Beyond!

The two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

The EFT-1 mission will test the systems critical for future human missions to deep space.

Orion’s back shell attachment and final assembly is taking place in the newly renamed Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building, by prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

Inside the Operations and Checkout Building high bay at the Kennedy Space Center, Fl, technicians on work platform monitor progress as crane lowers the middle back shell tile panel for installation on the Orion crew module.   Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis
Inside the Operations and Checkout Building high bay at the Kennedy Space Center, Fl, technicians on work platform monitor progress as crane lowers the middle back shell tile panel for installation on the Orion crew module. Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

One of the primary goals of NASA’s eagerly anticipated Orion EFT-1 uncrewed test flight is to test the efficacy of the heat shield and back shell tiles in protecting the vehicle – and future human astronauts – from excruciating temperatures reaching over 4000 degrees Fahrenheit (2200 C) during scorching re-entry heating.

At the conclusion of the EFT-1 flight, the detached Orion capsule plunges back and re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 MPH (32,000 kilometers per hour).

“That’s about 80% of the reentry speed experienced by the Apollo capsule after returning from the Apollo moon landing missions,” Scott Wilson, NASA’s Orion Manager of Production Operations at KSC, told me during an interview at KSC.

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

The Orion EFT-1 vehicle is due to roll out of the O & C in about two weeks and be moved to its fueling facility at KSC for the next step in launch processing.

Orion will eventually launch atop the SLS, NASA’s new mammoth heavy lift booster which the agency is now targeting for its maiden launch no later than November 2018 – detailed in my story here.

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

Ken Kremer

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

Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. Credit: NASA/MSFC
Story updated[/caption]

After a thorough review of cost and engineering issues, NASA managers formally approved the development of the agency’s mammoth heavy lift rocket – the Space Launch System or SLS – which will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built and is intended to take astronauts farther beyond Earth into deep space than ever before possible – to Asteroids and Mars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

The Search for Alien Life Could Get A Boost From NASA’s Next-Generation Rocket

In three years, NASA is planning to light the fuse on a huge rocket designed to bring humans further out into the solar system.

We usually talk about SLS here in the context of the astronauts it will carry inside the Orion spacecraft, which will have its own test flight later in 2014. But today, NASA advertised a possible other use for the rocket: trying to find life beyond Earth.

At a symposium in Washington on the search for life, NASA associate administrator John Grunsfeld said SLS could serve two major functions: launching bigger telescopes, and sending a mission on an express route to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The James Webb Space Telescope, with a mirror of 6.5 meters (21 feet), will in part search for exoplanets after its launch in 2018. Next-generation telescopes of 10 to 20 meters (33 to 66 feet) could pick out more, if SLS could bring them up into space.

“This will be a multi-generational search,” said Sara Seager, a planetary scientist and physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She added that the big challenge is trying to distinguish a planet like Earth from the light of its parent star; the difference between the two is a magnitude of 10 billion. “Our Earth is actually extremely hard to find,” she said.

Much like our solar system, Kepler-62 is home to two habitable zone worlds. The small shining object seen to the right of Kepler-62f is Kepler-62e. Orbiting on the inner edge of the habitable zone, Kepler-62e is roughly 60 percent larger than Earth. Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech.
Much like our solar system, Kepler-62 is home to two habitable zone worlds. The small shining object seen to the right of Kepler-62f is Kepler-62e. Orbiting on the inner edge of the habitable zone, Kepler-62e is roughly 60 percent larger than Earth. Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech.

While the symposium was not talking much about life in the solar system, Europa is considered one of the top candidates due to the presence of a possible subsurface ocean beneath its ice. NASA is now seeking ideas for a mission to this moon, following news that water plumes were spotted spewing from the moon’s icy south pole. A mission to Europa would take seven years with the technology currently in NASA’s hands, but the SLS would be powerful enough to speed up the trip to only three years, Grunsfeld said.

And that’s not all that SLS could do. If it does bring astronauts deeper in space as NASA hopes it will, this opens up a range of destinations for them to go to. Usually NASA talks about this in terms of its human asteroid mission, an idea it has been working on and pitching for the past year to a skeptical, budget-conscious Congress.

But in passing, John Mather (NASA’s senior project scientist for Webb) said it’s possible astronauts could be sent to maintain the telescope. Webb is supposed to be parked in a Lagrange point (gravitationally stable location) in the exact opposite direction of the sun, almost a million miles away. It’s a big contrast to the Hubble Space Telescope, which was conveniently parked in low Earth orbit for astronauts to fix every so often with the space shuttle.

An Artist's Conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: ESA.
An Artist’s Conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: ESA.

While NASA works on the funding and design for larger telescope mirrors, Webb is one of the two new space telescopes it is focusing on in the search for life. Webb’s infrared eyes will be able to peer at solar systems being born, once it is launched in 2018. Complementary to that will be the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which will fly in 2017 and examine planets that pass in front of their parent stars to find elements in their atmospheres.

The usual cautions apply when talking about this article: NASA is talking about several missions under development, and it is unclear yet what the success of SLS or any of these will be until they are battle-tested in space.

But what this discussion does show is the agency is trying to find many purposes for its next-generation rocket, and working to align it to astrophysics goals as well as its desire to send humans further out in the solar system.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two-orbit, four- hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

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

Ken Kremer

Delta 4 Heavy rocket and super secret US spy satellite roar off Pad 37 on June 29, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA’s Orion EFT-1 capsule will blastoff atop a similar Delta 4 Heavy Booster in December 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Delta 4 Heavy rocket and super secret US spy satellite roar off Pad 37 on June 29, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA’s Orion EFT-1 capsule will blastoff atop a similar Delta 4 Heavy Booster in December 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

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

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

2014 is the Year of Orion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

LAS assembly was finalized in December.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two-orbit, four- hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

Spacesuited Astronauts Climb Aboard Boeing CST-100 Commercial Crew Capsule for Key Tests

A pair of NASA astronauts donned their spacesuits for key fit check evaluations inside a test version of the Boeing Company’s CST-100 commercial ‘space taxi’ which was unveiled this week for the world’s first glimpse of the cabin’s interior.

Boeing is among a trio of American aerospace firms, including SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp, seeking to restore America’s capability to fly humans to Earth orbit and the space station using seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Astronauts Serena Aunon and Randy Bresnik conducted a day long series of technical evaluations inside a fully outfitted, full scale mock up of the CST-100, while wearing NASA’s iconic orange launch-and-entry flight suits from the space shuttle era.

During the tests, Boeing technicians monitored the astronauts ergonomic ability to work in the seats and move around during hands on use of the capsules equipment, display consoles and storage compartments.

The purpose of the testing at Boeing’s Houston Product Support Center is to see what works well and what needs modifications before fixing the final capsule design for construction.

“It’s an upgrade,” said astronaut Serena Aunon at the evaluation. “It is an American vehicle, of course it is an upgrade.”

This is an interior view of The Boeing Company's CST-100 spacecraft, which features LED lighting and tablet technology.  Image Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz
This is an interior view of The Boeing Company’s CST-100 spacecraft, which features LED lighting and tablet technology.
Image Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

Former NASA Astronaut Chris Ferguson, the commander of the final shuttle flight (STS-135) by Atlantis, is leading Boeing’s test effort as the director of Boeing’s Crew and Mission Operations.

“These are our customers. They’re the ones who will take our spacecraft into flight, and if we’re not building it the way they want it we’re doing something wrong,” said Ferguson.

“We’ll probably make one more go-around and make sure that everything is just the way they like it.”

The CST-100 is designed to carry a crew of up to 7 astronauts, or a mix of cargo and crew, on missions to low-Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS) around the middle of this decade.

Although it resembles Boeing’s Apollo-era capsules from the outside, the interior employs state of the art modern technology including sky blue LED lighting and tablet technology.

Check out this video showing the astronauts and engineers during the CST-100 testing

Nevertheless Boeing’s design goal is to keep the flight technology as simple as possible.

“What you’re not going to find is 1,100 or 1,600 switches,” said Ferguson. “When these guys go up in this, they’re primary mission is not to fly this spacecraft, they’re primary mission is to go to the space station for six months. So we don’t want to burden them with an inordinate amount of training to fly this vehicle. We want it to be intuitive.”

The CST-100 crew transporter will fly to orbit atop the venerable Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) from Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The CST-100 crew capsule awaits liftoff aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral in this artist’s concept. Credit: Boeing
The CST-100 crew capsule awaits liftoff aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral in this artist’s concept. Credit: Boeing

Boeing is aiming for an initial three day manned orbital test flight of the CST-100 during 2016, says John Mulholland, Boeing vice president and program manger for Commercial Programs.

The 1st docking mission to the ISS would follow in 2017 – depending on the very uncertain funding that Congress approves for NASA.

The Atlas V was also chosen to launch one of Boeing’s commercial crew competitors, namely the Dream Chaser mini shuttle built by Sierra Nevada Corp.

Boeing CST-100 capsule mock-up, interior view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Boeing CST-100 capsule early mock-up, interior view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

NASA’s CCP program is fostering the development of the CST-100 as well as the SpaceX Dragon and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser to replace America’s capability to launch humans to space that was lost following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters two years ago in July 2011.

Since 2011, every American astronaut has been 100% dependent on the Russians and their Soyuz capsule to hitch a ride to the ISS.

“We pay one of our [ISS] partners, the Russians, $71 million a seat to fly,” says Ed Mango, CCP’s program manager. “What we want to do is give that to an American company to fly our crews into space.”

Simultaneously NASA and its industry partners are designing and building the Orion crew capsule and SLS heavy lift booster to send humans to the Moon and deep space destinations including Near Earth Asteroids and Mars.

Ken Kremer

Interior view of Boeing CST-100 commercial crew capsule. Credit: NASA
Interior view of Boeing CST-100 commercial crew capsule. Credit: NASA

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