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NASA's next generation spacecraft Orion on track for 2014 test flight

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Mar 3, 2013, 8:00 UTC

Sen—NASA's next generation spacecraft Orion, designed to take humans to deep space, is on track for its first unmanned test flight in September 2014, the US space agency reports.

The test flight, designated Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), will see an unmanned but pressurized Orion vehicle lifted into orbit by a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket that will blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Orion will orbit Earth twice at an altitude of 3,600 miles (about 5,800 km) which is about 15 times higher than the orbit of the International Space Station and farther than any spacecraft designed to carry crew has reached since the last Apollo mission.

After completing two orbits Orion will return through Earth's atmosphere at a speed of about 20,000 mph - the fastest re-entry since the last Apollo 17 capsule returned from the Moon in 1972.

The high speed re-entry will enable NASA and its contractors to evaluate the protection of the vehicle's heat shield which will have instruments to measure temperature and plasma flow around the spacecraft. The capsule will encounter temperatures of up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit on re-entry so the protection of the heat shield is an essential component to be tested before astronauts can use it.

Orion progam manager Mark Geyer explained: "It allows us to stress the heat shield in conditions that are very close to what we will see coming back from a region around the moon. This is going to help us make our heat shield lighter, safer and more reliable."

After its high speed re-entry the capsule will slow down under parachute and splash down in the Pacific Ocean. Several parachute drop tests have already been conducted, and recent tests showed that Orion will be able to land safely even if a main parachute fails.

Orion is being built by NASA to take astronauts to destinations such as the Moon, Mars and asteroids. It will be capable of carrying four astronauts. NASA's Dan Dumbacher said of the test flight: "It's a key element of our overall plan to get humans beyond Earth orbit as quickly as we can." 

The Orion test vehicle consists of five elements which will be evaluated. The Launch Abort System (LAS) would be used to propel the Crew Module in the event of an emergency during launch. The Crew Module is where the astronauts will reside (though not in 2014 as the test flight is unmanned) whilst the Service Module contains Orion's propulsion, power and life support systems. It was announced recently that the advanced and intelligent electronics systems of the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) will be adopted and incorporated into Orion's Service Module for its 2017 test mission. When the Crew Module is joined to the Service Module it provides the water, oxygen and nitrogen needed for a habitable environment, as well as in-space propulsion.

Orion is connected to its launch vehicle by the Spacecraft Adaptor and Fairings component whilst the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to Stage Adaptor connects the entire structure to the first stage of the rocket.

EFT-1 will be used to review and refine the design of Orion. NASA will also share the information with their commercial crew partners which are building crew transport for low Earth orbit such as SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation.

NASA's video below depicts the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1).

Although the 2014 test will see the vehicle launch atop a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket, for which a special adapter to connect the two has been built, NASA's plan after EFT-1 is to use its next big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), to send Orion on its way.

SLS, which will be certified for human spaceflight, is being designed with two configurations, one that can lift 70 metric tons and a larger configuration with a second stage that will be capable of lifting 130 metric tons. The first test flight of SLS will consist of the smaller 70 metric ton configuration with Orion atop, and is scheduled for 2017. 

In its larger format the SLS will stand 384 feet tall. Its height and lift capability will exceed those of the Saturn V moon rocket which stood 363 feet tall (110 metres) and could lift 120 metric tons to Low Earth Orbit.

NASA's Todd May explained that the Orion EFT-1 will assist development of the SLS: "There are a lot of things about this mission that helps SLS. A lot of this data we're going to use to understand the structural properties, the aero-loading, the guidance navigation and control that we feed back into our calculations."

EFT-1 will be followed by Exploration Mission-1 in 2017, another unmanned flight but the first to combine Orion with the SLS. That will be followed by Exploration Mission-2, which will launch Orion and a crew of four astronauts on a space mission.