NASA Gets One Step Closer To An Orion Liftoff
December 14, 2012

Orion Spacecraft Plans Are Progressing Towards Liftoff In 2014

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

NASA has been steadily working on Orion, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, (or MPCV) and preparing it for its first journey beyond low Earth orbit in 2014. It´s first trip will be unmanned and meant to test the re-entry performance of the Orion capsule. When Orion is completed, it will be used to send astronauts farther away than any other spacecraft.

Yesterday, NASA posted an update detailing the progress of Orion´s assembly, saying some recent engineering advances are paving the road to a successful 2014 launch at Kennedy Space Center.

These engineering advances include a new way to marry the carbon fiber skin of the heat shield with its titanium frame, a new adapter to connect rockets to the spacecraft and a new plan to build a sustainable launch facility.

Before astronauts are set hurtling beyond low Earth orbit and other points unknown, NASA is focusing on re-entry. For its first trip, Orion will embark upon Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1). During this test, the Orion spacecraft will travel 15 times farther than the International Space Station. Orion will then travel back to Earth at 5,000 miles per hour. As it approaches the Earth´s atmosphere, its heat shield will need to endure the extreme heat and pressure so as to keep future astronauts in the capsule safe for touchdown.

Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for NASA´s Orion spacecraft, has developed a new tool used to bolt the carbon fiber skin of the heat shield to its titanium skeleton. When completed, the crew at Lockheed´s Denver facility will have used nearly 3,000 bolts to bring these two important pieces together. Lockheed has even developed a special stand to hold the heat shield while they bolt these two pieces together. This work is expected to be completed next month.

From there, the heat shield will travel across the country to Textron Defense Systems near Boston. Here, the final layer of the heat shield will be added. This layer, made of an ablative material, is similar to the final layer on the Apollo spacecraft. NASA has said they expect the heat shield to be completed and ready for installation on the Orion spacecraft by next summer.

"These recent milestones are laying the foundation for our first flight test of Orion in 2014,” explained Dan Dumbacher, NASA´s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, speaking in a press statement.

"The work being done to prepare for the flight test is really a nationwide effort and we have a dedicated team committed to our goal of expanding the frontier of space."

While Lockheed takes care of the heat shield, NASA engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama are gearing up to begin building an adapter which will be used to connect Orion to a United Launch Alliance Delta IV heavy-lift rocket which will be used during EFT-1. The design of this adapter will also be tested during EFT-1, and if all goes well, it will be used again during the first launch of NASA´s Space Launch System (SLS) in 2017. This launch will carry Orion and other payloads past lower Earth orbit.

Finally, the concept for a new launch facility has passed through NASA´s Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) Program. The GSDO board is now ready to move on from the conceptual to design stage. This new launch facility will be home to future Orion and SLS launches.

NASA has been steadily testing components which make up the Orion spacecraft. In August, NASA put Orion´s parachutes to the test in southwestern Arizona. These parachutes will be used to safely carry the astronauts in Orion´s capsule as they travel back to Earth.

NASA also tested a splashdown landing and completed water impact tests for Orion in September. Next year, NASA will complete another round of water impact tests on a full-scale model of the Orion capsule.