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Orion capsule to be fueled for test flight

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Sep 13, 2014, 3:06 UTC

Sen—A capsule designed to carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo moon program took a small but significant step Thursday toward its unmanned shakedown test flight scheduled for December.

The Orion spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, was rolled out of its processing hangar at the Kennedy Space Center and delivered to another building where it will be fueled with helium for pressurization, ammonia for cooling and hydrazine propellant in preparation for launch 4 December.

“This is a pretty historic moment for us,” Scott Wilson, NASA’s Orion production operations manager, told reporters at the Kennedy Space Center. “This marks the end of the assembly process for the spacecraft.”

The first Orion will not fly on NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket. That flight is now expected in late 2018 and will include a second Orion capsule, also unmanned. The first crewed flight of Orion launching on an SLS rocket is targeted for 2021.

The Orion being prepared to fly in December will ride atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket that will take off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just south of NASA’s Florida spaceport.

Among the goals of Orion’s first test flight is making sure the capsule’s thermal protection system can withstand the heat generated during an atmospheric re-entry from deep space. Information also will be collected about Orion’s computers, software, guidance and control, avionics, parachutes and other systems.

To simulate a deep-space re-entry, Orion will be booted into an orbit reaching as far as about 3,600 miles from Earth (5,800 km)—14 times farther away than the International Space Station’s orbit.

Orion will then separate from its mockup service module and the Delta rocket’s upper-stage motor and head back toward Earth. If all goes as planned it should slam into the atmosphere at a speed of about 20,000 mph (32,000 kph) and reach temperatures of about 4,000° Fahrenheit (2,200° C) on the heat shield.

The mission, known as EFT-1 would come to an end 4 hours and 25 minutes after launch with the capsule’s parachute splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA already has spent about $9 billion on the Orion program, including development work that began under the now-defunct Constellation moon program. NASA intends to use the capsule to fly astronauts to destinations beyond the space station, including asteroids, the Moon and eventually to Mars.