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