Sen—NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD. The maiden blastoff of NASA’s Orion crew capsule on an unmanned test flight could potentially still take place “in the original slot in September” rather than the currently slated target in December 2014, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told Sen in an exclusive one-on-one interview this week at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.
I spoke to Bolden about NASA’s latest thinking on the flight schedule while we were inspecting NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission spacecraft undergoing preflight processing in the Goddard cleanroom.
“EFT-1 is still launching in December [at this time],” Bolden told me.
But NASA is absolutely keeping its options open for an earlier launch this fall rather than near year’s end, he said. There are several other rocket launches also to factor into consideration.
This March, Orion’s inaugural launch on the crucial Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission was bumped back three months from its long planned slot in mid-September to December 2014, when NASA was told to make way for recently declassified, and previously top secret military surveillance satellites for the US Air Force—which was given a higher priority by the federal government.
The covert Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, or GSSAP, satellites were only unveiled in Feb. 2014 during a speech by General William Shelton, commander of the US Air Force Space Command.
“So we ended up moving from the fall slot to the December slot,” Bolden stated.
Despite Orion’s postponement, teams of technicians are still working around the clock to have the vehicle ready as soon as possible and keep the program moving forward. Every delay invariably costs money that is obviously in very short supply in these fiscally very stringent times.
“The vehicle will be ready to fly in September,” Bolden told Sen. “But because of the switch of the launch dates [from September] we are planning to launch Orion in December.”
I asked Bolden about NASA chances of launching in September, since the overall launch manifest has changed several times since the EFT-1 launch postponement was announced.
“The team is working toward being available for a September launch date. So we could still go on the original launch date.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Ken Kremer (Sen) inspect NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft in cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Image credit: Ken Kremer
Orion EFT-1 will launch atop a mammoth United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. The triple barreled booster is the most powerful rocket in the American fleet and generates some 2 million pounds of liftoff thrust.
“At this particular time, my understanding from Bill Gerstenmaier (NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Spaceflight) and his team is that at this particular time if we were all of a sudden offered the [launch] slot and it became available, that we could launch EFT-1 in the original slot in September,” Bolden told me.
“That’s [just] for right now,” he emphasized.
So whenever it does happen, Orion will liftoff from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The Orion stack comprises the crew and service modules (CM/SM) and the launch abort system (LAS) and is being manufactured by prime contractor Lockheed Martin at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
All of the hardware for the first and second stages of the Delta IV Heavy rocket has arrived at the Cape.
I was on hand to witness the unveiling of the center and starboard side first stage boosters as well as the LAS. And I’ve toured the progress of the CM and SM as well numerous times during assembly work in the Operations and Checkout Building at KSC.
Orion is NASA’s next step in manned deep space exploration. The state-of-the-art capsule will carry astronauts back to the Moon and beyond on journeys to Asteroids and one day to Mars.
The Delta IV will propel Orion to an orbital altitude of 3600 miles above Earth on a two-orbit, four-hour flight, which is 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) and farther than any human spacecraft has ventured beyond Earth in four decades.
The primary goal of the EFT-1 mission is to test the heat shield, which will return at 80% of the velocity of astronauts returning from a mission to Mars. The flight will also test critical flight systems and other capabilities to validate Orion’s designs and computer models before the first full scale flight in 2017 on NASA’s new SLS rocket.
Two of ULA Delta IV heavy boosters for the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 on view at Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Image credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Launch Abort System (LAS) for Orion EFT-1 on view inside the Launch Abort System Facility at KSC. Image credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com