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

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

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

Any leaks occurring in flight could threaten the astronauts lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
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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