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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The big reason to get to those high speeds during EFT-1 is to be able to test out the thermal protection system, and the heat shield is the biggest part of that.”

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

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

“Numerous sensors and instrumentation have been specially installed on the EFT-1 heat shield and the back shell tiles to collect measurements of things like temperatures, pressures and stresses during the extreme conditions of atmospheric reentry,” Wilson explained.

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

The data gathered during the unmanned EFT-1 flight will aid in confirming. or refuting, design decisions and computer models as the program moves forward to the first flight atop NASA’s mammoth SLS booster in 2017 on the EM-1 mission and human crewed missions thereafter.

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

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

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

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

Orion Crew Module Comes Alive at T Minus 1 Year to Maiden Blastoff

Technicians work inside the Orion crew module being built at Kennedy Space Center to prepare it for its first power on. Turning the avionics system inside the capsule on for the first time marks a major milestone in Orion’s final year of preparations before its first mission, Exploration Flight Test 1. Credit: Lockheed Martin
Story and imagery updated[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Orion, the first NASA spaceship that will ever carry Earthlings to deep space destinations, has at last been “powered on” for the first time at the manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) where it’s the centerpiece of a beehive humming 24/7 with hi tech processing activities in all directions.

“Power On” marks a major milestone ahead of the maiden space bound Orion test flight dubbed “EFT-1” – now at T-Minus 1 year and counting!

NASA and prime contractor Lockheed Martin recently granted Universe Today an exclusive in depth inspection tour of the impressive Orion EFT-1 crew module, service module and associated hardware destined for the crucial unmanned test flight slated for liftoff from Cape Canaveral in September 2014.

“We are moving fast!” said Jules Schneider, Orion Project manager for Lockheed Martin at KSC, during an exclusive interview with Universe Today as we spoke beside the Orion EFT-1 spacecraft inside the clean room.

“We are bringing Orion to life. Lots of flight hardware has now been installed.”

Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock ups stacked 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) mock up 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

“We are working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Schneider told me.

Some 200 people are actively employed on building Orion by Lockheed Martin at the Kennedy Space Center.

“There are many significant Orion assembly events ongoing this year,” said Larry Price, Orion deputy program manager at Lockheed Martin, in an interview with Universe Today at Lockheed 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, building the service module and finally mating the crew and service modules (CM & SM),” Price told me.

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

And Universe Today has had a front row seat.

I have been very fortunate to periodically visit Orion up close over the past year and half to evaluate the testing and assembly progress inside the Operations and Checkout Building at KSC where the vehicle is now rapidly coming together, since the bare bones pressure vessel arrived to great fanfare in June 2012.

For the first time Orion looked to my eyes like a real spaceship, rather than the backbone shell outfitted with hundreds of important test harnesses, strain gauges and wiring to evaluate its physical and structural integrity.

Technicians work inside the Orion crew module being built at Kennedy Space Center to prepare it for its first power on. Turning the avionics system inside the capsule on for the first time marks a major milestone in Orion’s final year of preparations before its first mission, Exploration Flight Test 1 Credit: Lockheed Martin
Technicians work inside the Orion crew module being built at Kennedy Space Center to prepare it for its first power on. Turning the avionics system inside the capsule on for the first time marks a major milestone in Orion’s final year of preparations before its first mission, Exploration Flight Test 1. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Engineers and technicians at KSC have removed the initial pressure testing gear and are now installing all the flight systems and equipment – such as avionics, instrumentation, flight computers, thrusters, wiring, plumbing, heat shield and much more – required to transform the initial empty shell into a fully functioning spacecraft.

“The Orion skeleton was here before. Now we are putting in all of the other systems,” Schneider explained to me.

“We are really busy.”

“So far over 66,000 Orion parts have been shipped to KSC from over 40 US states,” Price explained.

The heat shield was due to arrive soon and technicians were drilling its attachment ring holes as I observed the work in progress.

“The propulsion, environmental control and life support systems are now about 90% in. The ammonia and propylene glycol loops for the thermal control system are in. Many of the flight harnesses are installed.”

“All of the reaction control thrusters are in – fueled by hydrazine – as well as the two hydrazine tanks and a helium tank. Altogether there are 12 hydrazine pods with two thrusters each,” Schneider elaborated.

The power distribution unit (PDU) – which basically functions as Orion’s computer brains – was installed just prior to my visit. All four PDU’s – which issue commands to the vehicle – were built by Honeywell.

Technicians were actively installing fiber optic and coaxial cables as I watched. They also were conducting leak tests on the environmental control coolant (ECLS) systems which had to be completed before the ‘power on’ testing could begin – in order to cool the avionics systems.

Thermal protection system (TPS) tiles were being bonded to the back panels which ring Orion. The TPS panels get attached early in 2014.

“This is real stuff,” said Schneider gleefully.

Inside the Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a tile technician works on a section of thermal protection system tiles seen by Universe Today  and that will be installed on the Orion crew module. Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis
Inside the Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a tile technician works on a section of thermal protection system tiles seen by Universe Today and that will be installed on the Orion crew module. Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

NASA says that “the preliminary data indicate Orion’s vehicle management computer, as well as its innovative power and data distribution system — which use state-of-the-art networking capabilities — performed as expected” during the initial crew module power on.

About two months or so of power on functional testing of various systems will follow.

Just like the configuration used in the Apollo era, the Orion crew module will sit atop a service module – and that work is likewise moving along at a rapid clip.

“The Orion service module (SM) is also almost complete,” Schneider said as he showed me the service module structure.

“Structurally the SM is 90% done. The active thermal control system is in and all the fluid systems are welded in and pressure tested.”

Cutaway diagram of Orion components including crew module and service module and adapters. Credit: NASA
Cutaway diagram of Orion components including crew module and service module and adapters. Credit: NASA

Orion EFT-1 will blastoff atop a mammoth United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket – the most powerful booster in America’s arsenal since the shuttle’s retirement in 2011.

The crew module and service module (CM/SM) will be mated inside the O&C and then be placed onto a mission adapter that eventually attaches to the top of the Delta IV Heavy booster.

They will be mated at the exact same spot in the O&C Building where the Apollo era command and service modules were stacked four decades ago.

Currently, the schedule calls for the Orion CM/SM stack to roll out to Kennedy’s Payload Hazardous Services Facility (PHSF) for servicing and fueling late this year, said Larry Price.

After that the CM/SM stack is transported to the nearby Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) for mating to the emergency Launch Abort System (LAS).

All that work could be done around March 2014 so that ground operations preparing for launch can commence, according to Price.

“In March 2014 we’ll be ready for ground ops. The normal launch processing flow starts in June 2014 leading to Orion’s launch from pad 37 in September 2014.”

“It’s very exciting and a tribute to the NASA and contractor teams,” Price said.

The 2014 uncrewed flight 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 two-orbit, four- hour 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.

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

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

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

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

“The Orion hardware and the Delta IV Heavy booster for the EFT-1 launch are on target for launch in 2014,” Scott Wilson, NASA’s Orion Manager of Production Operations, told Universe Today in an interview.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Orion, MAVEN, Mars rovers and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Nov 14-19: “MAVEN Mars Launch and Curiosity Explores Mars, Orion and NASA’s Future”, Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, 8 PM

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

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

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

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

Vision of the Future? SLS Model “Flies” in Wind Tunnel Test

NASA’s Space Launch System buffet model in NASA’s Langley Researcher Center’s Transonic Dynamics Tunnel. Image credit: NASA/LaRC

This week, researchers tested a ten-foot-long model of the new Space Launch System, NASA’s next big thing for launching humans beyond Earth orbit. The test was conducted at the Langley Research Center’s Transonic Dynamics Tunnel (TDT).

“This is a critical milestone for the design of the vehicle,” said Langley research engineer, Dave Piatak.

Data retrieved will help prepare SLS for its first mission in 2017, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), which will deliver an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to lunar orbit to check out the vehicle’s systems. But before SLS’s first flight, the safety vehicle must be demonstrated through analysis and testing. An important step in ensuring a safe flight to orbit is buffet wind-tunnel testing to help determine launch vehicle structural margins.

To do this, a wind-tunnel model is put through its paces at transonic and low supersonic speeds reaching up to Mach 1.2. Testing aerodynamics at these speeds is essential to understanding the structural interaction to the flow field around the vehicle and determining loads on the flight vehicle.

360 miniature sensors on the model’s surface are scanned by a data acquisition system scanning at thirteen thousand scans-per-second. Unlike the rigid SLS buffet wind-tunnel model, the real launch vehicle is quite flexible. The rocket will bend and shake in response to forces during flight, and engineers use tests like this to determine that the resulting bending loads and vibrations are within the launch vehicle’s safe limits.

NASA engineers are now analyzing the data, and will be used to help refine the design of the SLS vehicle before the full-size rocket is built for flight tests. After completing EM-1, SLS will perform its second mission in 2021, Exploration Mission-2, launching Orion with its first crew of astronauts to demonstrate orbit around the Moon.

Source: PhysOrg

NASA Making Strides with the New Space Launch System

In 2011, America lost the ability to send humans into space when NASA retired the shuttle program.   Lately, there has been a burst of news about the commercial side of spaceflight and how private companies such as SpaceX and VirginGalatic will soon be able to take over where the shuttle left off.  But that doesn’t mean NASA has given up the ability to send people into space forever and recently the agency has taken a few steps toward regaining that ability.

The Space Launch System (SLS) is NASA’s new platform for launching both humans and cargo into Earth orbit and beyond.  With an eventual expected payload capacity of 130 metric tons it will theoretically be the most powerful rocket ever built.  On July 25th, it hit a major milestone when it was officially upgraded by an independent review board from the “concept development“ phase of the project to the “preliminary design“ phase.

“The in-depth assessment confirm the basic vehicle concepts of the SLS, allowing the team to move forward and start more detailed engineering design.“ William Gerstenmaier of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate said.  This puts the system on the path to the next milestone: the preliminary design review expected late next year.

That design review will cover a system that will likely be comprised of two five-stage rocket boosters like those that were used on the space shuttle.  Since those boosters were only capable of achieving low-Earth orbit, NASA needed to add some extra power to the SLS in order to reach deep space where many of its missions will take place.  Their solution is what is known as an “advanced booster“, essentially a late-stage chemical rocket that will fire well into in the ascent of the craft and carry it out of Earth’s gravity well.

The design process of the advanced boosters hit its own milestone on July 13th when NASA announced it had selected the proposals it will use to begin contract negotiations for the development of the system.  This is the first step of NASA’s procurement process, with a possible total contract of $200 million spread between the companies that receive finalized contracts. Those companies will likely come from the pool of those selected in this first step.  They include, Aerojet General Corp, ATK Launch Systems Inc, Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation – Aerospace Systems and Dynetics, Inc.   Dynetics, based out of Huntsville, Alabama, came out the winner for this round of the contract competition, with three of its proposals moved on to the contract negotiation phase while ATK, Aerojet and Northrop had one each.  The names of the proposals are:

–        “Subscale Composite Tank Set“ – Northrop Grumman

–        “F-1 Engine Risk Reduction Task“ – Aerojet General Corp

–        “F-1 Engine Risk Reduction Task“ – Dynetics Inc.

–        “Main Propulsion System Risk Reduction Task“ – Dynetics Inc.

–        “Structures Risk Reduction Task“ – Dynetics Inc.

–        “Integrated Booster Static Test“ – ATK Launch Systems Inc.

The next step of the process will require the awardees to come up with engineering demonstrations and risk reduction concepts for their proposals.  Over a 30-month period, the companies will have to demonstrate their technology prior to completion of the competition for contracts in 2015.  Engineers at NASA will then have some time to integrate the advanced booster system with the other SLS modules before the first test launch of the entire system in 2017.  While NASA might not be able to take humans to the stars for the next few years, they are making strides towards that goal.

 

Lead image caption: Components of the Space Launch System, highlighting the advanced boosters. Credit: NASA