NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to the Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 19, 2014 after its successful maiden flight on Dec. 5, 2014. Image credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com

Feb 27, 2015 What’s Next for NASA’s Orion Crew Capsule?

Sen—Following on the heels of Orion’s flawlessly executed maiden flight on the uncrewed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission, the question is what comes next for NASA’s next generation crew capsule, and what lessons can be drawn from EFT-1 for follow on flights?

Orion lies at the heart of NASA’s human spaceflight strategy to once again carry astronauts beyond Earth on voyages to deep space destinations in our Solar System.

“The EFT-1 flight was almost flawless,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told Sen in an interview. The next time Orion flies is currently slated for Nov. 2018 on the Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) test flight during the inaugural launch of the agency’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, simultaneously under development.

Sending “Humans to Mars” is NASA’s primary objective, Bolden reiterates at every opportunity. NASA has established an agency wide effort dubbed “Journey to Mars” to coordinate its research and development activities aimed at hopefully launching crews to the Red Planet during the 2030s. “It’s all aimed at getting NASA to Mars,” Bolden said. The EFT-1 test flight was key to starting NASA down the long pathway on the “Road to Mars.”

Orion’s spaceflight career started with a spectacular dawn blastoff atop a two stage United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy—currently the world’s most powerful rocket—at 7:05 a.m. EST, Dec. 5, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, where I was an eyewitness to the culmination of a decade of efforts to design, develop and launch the capsule.

The two orbit, 4.5 hour test flight of Orion on the EFT-1 mission was virtually a complete success. The capsule reached an altitude of 3,604 miles (5,800 km) and then separated from the service module and fired braking rockets to initiate the plummet back to Earth and high speed atmospheric reentry at 20,000 mph (32,000 kph).

One of the major flight objectives was to test the ability of 16.5-foot-wide heat shield and thermal protection tiles to protect the vehicle from scorching 4,000°F (2,200°C) temperatures during the 10 minute descent.

The mission concluded with a successful parachute assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, retrieval by U.S. Navy divers and transport back to land at U.S. Naval Base San Diego in California. Finally, a long haul drive of some 2,700 miles across America on a flat bed truck brought Orion back to home base at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Dec. 19 where I saw it fully intact just before the Christmas holidays.

NASA Administrator Bolden inspected the vehicle in early January and I asked for his assessment. “Orion and the heat shield was in incredible shape!” Bolden said. “It gives a lot of confidence for the future.” 

“The vehicle had been 3,600 miles out and came back in at 4,000°F. It had an ablative coating on the bottom of it, that’s the part that is supposed to burn off. Well it didn’t burn off!” Bolden explained. “Apollo would not have looked like that.”

Orion’s return velocity corresponded to about 85% of the reentry velocity for crews returning home from deep space voyages to the Moon, asteroids and Mars.

Orion was outfitted with over 1,200 sensors that monitored electrical and plumbing systems, avionics, navigation, computers, structure and the dosage and effects of high doses of radiation while passing through the Van Allen radiation belts.

Over 600 gigabytes of data were collected on every aspect of the flight including the launch, fairing jettison, second stage ignition, thruster firings, orbital cruise, service module separation, descent, high speed atmospheric reentry and splashdown.

“We learned a lot. Like on fuel usage and the navigation system,” said Bolden. “It gives confidence that we had a pretty good idea of what we were doing.”

The only significant issue was the post splashdown failure of several of the uprighting bags to deploy.

All this data will be fed into the design and assembly of the EM-1 capsule and make modifications based on lessons learned. That was the point of the EFT-1 test flight.

“There are some tests that we had planned to do in the future that we may not need to do now,” Bolden elaborated. “Also what things surprised us that maybe need another test.”

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion. Engineers from Lockheed Martin and NASA are assessing all the data for its impact on EM-1 and beyond. An initial review was given to NASA within two weeks of launch and a comprehensive 90 day report will he handed over in early March 2015. “The quick look stuff we gave to NASA looked really good,” Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Vice President & Program manager for Orion, told Sen in an interview.

After arriving back at KSC, technicians eventually removed the back shell panels and heat shield to get a detailed look inside. “The back shell panels are off. The guys can crawl around inside and actually see what is going on,” Hawes explained.

Samples were taken out of the heat shield for analysis on its performance. “You see a few big holes in it now because we’ve taken core samples. Those are being tested and analyzed now. We’ve also done a total laser scan of the surface. That will give us a very detailed engineering base of knowledge of what the heat shield did.”

Lockheed and NASA will use the data to decide on whether to change the heat shield from a single monolithic shape to one comprised of blocks. The monolithic structure is hard to build because its honeycomb structure is very labor intensive to manually fill in all the cells with the avcoat material with a caulk gun. “We have produced samples of the block material and done some testing and will make a decision in the future with NASA.” Hawes told me.

Another key element in planning for EM-1 and future capsules is weight reduction. “We are looking at how much we can pull out for EM-1.”

The initial components for the primary structure of EM-1 are now being built in machine houses across the US. Pieces of the pressure vessel will be welded together later this year at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and then shipped to Kennedy.

“This year is about getting the next crew module under construction and down at the Cape by the end of the year. Engineers can then start doing the outfitting at the Kennedy Space Center," says Hawes.

When EM-1 launches in 2018 it will fly beyond the Moon’s orbit to a distance further from Earth than any human rated vehicles in over four decades since Apollo 17.

As for the EFT-1 capsule, it will be reflown in 2018 on the Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) mission on top of a Peacekeeper missile launched from Cape Canaveral. That will test the ability of a fully capable Launch Abort System (LAS) to pull the capsule away from an exploding rocket in a split second in case of an launch emergency at high altitude. No astronauts can launch aboard an Orion until the abort system has been verified. “We cannot put people on board of Orion until we prove that the ascent abort system will save the crew,” said Jules Schneider, Orion Project Manager for Lockheed Martin.

The first crewed Orion won't launch until 2020 at the earliest on the EM-2 flight. Of course all these launch dates are dependent on NASA funding.

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Up close view of trio of core samples taken from Orion EFT-1 heat shield after return to Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014. Image credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com