NASA Testing Orion Spacecraft Ahead of Proposed 2014 Test Flight
May 9, 2012

NASA Testing Orion Spacecraft Ahead of Proposed 2014 Test Flight

A multi-purpose NASA spacecraft originally designed as part of the cancelled Constellation program is currently undergoing rigorous testing in preparation for a scheduled 2014 test flight, the US space agency has announced.

The Orion service module, a low earth orbit manned vehicle being built by Lockheed Martin based on the now-cancelled return voyage to the moon, is currently being tested by engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in order to make sure that it will be able to survive the rigors of a deep-space voyage.

"To date, Marshall has completed two structural loads tests, and another is under way," NASA officials have reported. "Structural loads tests prove the structural performance or material behavior of a design as weight is applied to it. Most of the time, the allowable weight is exceeded to test the material at extreme conditions to verify the tolerance of the material or design."

"Marshall was called upon to assist since we had the necessary test facilities and experienced team that could move out quickly to take on these very complex tests," Scott Chartier, a test engineer in Marshall's Propulsion Systems Test Branch, said in a statement. "We were able to save time and budget since we had the facilities Orion needed and they didn´t have to build a duplicate test facility."

Thus far, they report that development tests have been performed on key structural parts of the Orion spacecraft known as the shear panel and the conical adapter. NASA explained that those pieces are essentially the skeleton of the vehicle, and that both the design and manufacturing processes used for the service modules have been tested and the load-bearing capabilities of the components have been verified.

"The shear panel and conical adapter joint achieved all load conditions, and no permanent or visual damage was observed after the tests," Chartier said. "In addition, the conical adapter was successfully taken to the maximum capability, which concluded the test series."

The next series of tests conducted by NASA will be required for the design to be accepted, and the information gathered following the tests will be incorporated into the Orion Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), which is planned for 2014.

Provided the materials and workmanship of the vehicle's shear panels are found to be acceptable, the EFT-1 test will launch an unmanned Orion spacecraft on a Delta IV Heavy to an altitude of 3,600 statute miles above Earth. If successful, it will be the first US spacecraft to achieve that distance since the end of the Apollo program, and the test will help ensure that the module's systems and heat shields can survive re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.