NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at a media briefing at Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral, Florida prior to successful Dec. 5, 2014 launch. Image credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com

Dec 18, 2014 America’s human spaceflight future takes flight with NASA’s Orion and commercial capsules

Sen—KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL—After years of waiting and frustrating delays, NASA’s multipronged LEO/BEO strategy to send humans back to space from American soil and eventually on the long road to the Red Planet is finally firing on all cylinders.

NASA’s comprehensive human spaceflight effort rests on two pillars; Commercially developed capsules transporting astronauts on short trips to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS) and the Orion deep space capsule targeting much longer journeys beyond Earth orbit (BEO) to ambitious destinations never before visited by humans.

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s trio of space shuttle orbiters in 2011, following wheel stop on the STS-135 mission led by Chris Ferguson, NASA’s final shuttle commander, American astronauts have been 100% reliant on Russia’s Soyuz manned capsules to hitch a ride to the space station and back.

Concrete steps to end the sole source human spaceflight reliance on Russia and venture further beyond the bounds of Earth are now in sight.

Boeing and SpaceX are building the CST-100 and Dragon V2 crew vehicles respectively under a public-private partnership started in 2010. Their development was fostered with seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and outlined in my prior blogs

NASA gave responsibility for near term development of LEO capable spaceships to private industry so that the agency could focus on the bigger picture of space exploration via the medium to long term development of a BEO capable spaceship—namely Orion.

The Orion program started about 10 years ago when Lockheed Martin was announced as the prime contractor working with NASA to design and manufacture the crew module.

Back then, Orion was part of Project Constellation under the Bush Administration’s plan to return humans to the Moon, first to orbit and later to land on our nearest neighbor during roughly the 2015 to 2020 time span. Plans were afoot to build a man tended base likely near the lunar south pole later in the 2020s.

The Obama Administration cancelled Constellation and the lunar landing objective soon after coming into office but eventually retained Orion for a revised goal of deep space missions eventually leading to Humans to Mars in the 2030s.

Now Orion has finally started to fulfill on that deep space promise when it soared to space on its inaugural flight on the flawlessly executed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission

The two orbit, 4.5 hour maiden test flight of Orion on the EFT-1 mission was a complete success starting with the spectacular blastoff on the world’s most powerful rocket, a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy, at 7:05 a.m. EST, Dec. 5, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The picture perfect launch was followed by a precisely implemented mission plan of milestones throughout the flight that lofted the spacecraft further away from Earth than any human rated spacecraft in more than four decades. Humans have not trekked beyond LEO since NASA’s Apollo 17 moon landing blastoff in December 1972.

Over 1200 sensors monitored Orion’s electrical and plumbing systems, avionics, computers, structure and response to high doses of radiation in the Van Allen belt during every aspect of the flight including the fairing jettison, second stage ignition, thruster firings, orbital cruise, high speed atmospheric reentry at 20,000 mph (32,000 kph), heat shield protected descent surviving scorching 4000 F (2200 C) temperatures and parachute assisted splashdown and recovery in the Pacific Ocean.

The Orion EFT-1 capsule was successfully brought back on land by US Navy divers and is heading to its Kennedy Space Center home in time for Christmas, followed by a thorough engineering analysis, scrutiny and tear down to gleam as much useful information as possible.

All this analysis will feed directly into the design of the next Orion spacecraft, said Larry Price, Lockheed Martin Deputy Orion Program Manager in a KSC interview with Sen.

The next test flight of Orion is set for no later than November 2018 on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) utilizing NASA’s mammoth new rocket the Space Launch System (SLS) concurrently under development and construction under contract with Boeing.

“We expect the pressure vessel for EM-1 to arrive at KSC by the end of 2015,” Price explained.

EM-1 will launch unmanned. It will travel somewhat beyond the Moon and back on a roughly three week long shakedown cruise mission to exercise the flight systems ahead of the first manned Orion launch on EM-2 slated around 2020 or 2021 on SLS-2.

But all this forward progress is contingent on the US President and future US Congresses maintaining or increasing NASA funding. Both Orion and commercial crew have been shortchanged by Washington in the past few years. The recently approved US Federal budget gives a slight monetary boost to NASA. Let’s hope for brighter times on both of NASA’s human spaceflight pillars ahead. 

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Prelaunch up close view of Orion EFT-1 capsule on Delta 4 Heavy rocket at Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. Image credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com

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NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Image credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com