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Orion gets heat shield as spacecraft readies for daring test flight

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Jun 7, 2014, 7:00 UTC

Sen—Orion is one step closer to a daring flight test later this year. A flight-ready version of the spacecraft, which is intended to bring humans out of low Earth orbit for the first time since the 1970s, has now had its heat shield installed.

The milestone is crucial because that piece of equipment is needed to protect Orion on its uncrewed test flight when it returns to Earth. The spacecraft will need to withstand temperatures of about 2,204° Celsius (4,000° Fahrenheit) as it comes back from an altitude 10 times higher than the International Space Station.

"It is extremely exciting to see the heat shield in place, ready to do its job," said Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

"The heat shield is such a critical piece, not just for this mission, but for our plans to send humans into deep space."

Orion's first test flight is officially set for December, three months later than its original date, for scheduling reasons; the U.S. Air Force wants the range to launch military surveillance satellites. However, NASA administrator Charles Bolden told Sen exclusively last month that NASA and Lockheed Martin are still hoping to launch in September.

"The vehicle will be ready to fly in September," Bolden said, adding, "The team is working toward being available for a September launch date. So we could still go on the original launch date."


Engineers attach the heat shield to the NASA Orion spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/Daniel Casper

That test is called Exploration Flight Test-1, which will see the spacecraft enter Earth's atmosphere at speeds of roughly 32,200 km per hour (20,000 mph) and splash down in the ocean. Engineers plan to examine the flight for data to better inform the design of future versions of Orion, and to see how the spacecraft "behaves" compared to what the computer models predict.

As NASA and Lockheed busily get the spacecraft ready for flights beyond Earth orbit, the agency is also working with three companies to make regular taxi flights to and from the International Space Station.

NASA's Commercial Crew Program saw a major milestone in late May when SpaceX unveiled the manned version of its Dragon spacecraft to great media fanfare. Dragon and the other two concepts being considered—Sierra Nevada's shuttle-like Dream Chaser spacecraft, and Boeing's CST-100—all passed the first phase of flight certification in May.

The program's goal is to bring astronauts to the International Space Station from American soil, a milestone NASA has been working for for years since the space shuttle was retired in 2011. The agency currently relies on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to bring its astronauts into orbit.

NASA is now preparing to award contracts for the second phase of the certification, but this will depend on how much money the agency receives from Congress. The current schedule calls for regular crewed flights to begin in 2017.

"This second phase will include at least one crewed flight test per awardee to verify the spacecraft can dock to the space station and all its systems perform as expected," NASA stated in May. "Contracts also will include at least two, and as many as six, crewed, post-certification missions to enable NASA to meet its station crew rotation requirements."

A further important stage in developing Orion will be completing its service module. Here is a video reporting on how the European Space Agency is proceding with its development.

 A report on ESA's development of Orion's service module. Credit: NASA