The first NASA spacecraft designed to fly astronauts beyond Earth orbit since the Apollo era of yore is apparently well on its way to making a flight test next year.
The mission is planned for launch in September 2014, and will see an Orion capsule orbit Earth without a crew and return through the atmosphere at speeds unmatched since astronauts last returned from the moon in 1972.
"It's a key element of our overall plan to get humans beyond Earth orbit as quickly as we can," explained Dan Dumbacher, deputy associate administrator for NASA's Exploration Systems Development Division.
Indeed, according to Dumbacher, Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1, will be the first chance engineers get to test Orion's design in space. Flying atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket, the spacecraft will be pressurized as it would be if astronauts were on-board. It is slated to orbit the Earth twice on a track that will take it more than 3,600 miles above us, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station.
From that height, Orion will be steered to a re-entry at speeds of about 20,000 mph, slamming into the atmosphere to test whether the heat shield will protect the spacecraft adequately.
"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," said Mark Geyer, Orion program manager. "This is going to help us make our heat shield lighter, safer and more reliable."
Launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the spacecraft is expected to carry scores of instruments. Even the heat shield will have instruments to measure temperature and plasma flow around the spacecraft as it endures the searing conditions of high-speed reentry.
Engineers will use the readings to update computer models and refine designs for the spacecraft, ground support equipment and the in-development Space Launch System rocket. The agency also will provide the data to the agency's commercial partners developing their own spacecraft.
Orion will land under parachutes in the Pacific Ocean where recovery teams from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Department of Defense will retrieve it and return it to Florida.
Just as the mission will help spacecraft designers, the recovery will show those on the ground what to expect when they begin retrieving crews after long missions into deep space, said Pepper Phillips, director of the Ground Systems Development and Operations Program based at Kennedy.
"The teams are exercising some static tests now, but we're going to be ready with this full-up active test of a live spacecraft," Phillips explained.
The firing room, which has been refurbished and extensively modified since last hosting a space shuttle launch, will give engineers direct links to the Orion after it is powered up later this year. Launch controllers will follow the mission from the same firing room, as well.
NASA designed Orion as a versatile spacecraft able to handle the hardships of flying safely far beyond Earth's atmosphere to take astronauts to distant destinations such as an asteroid and Mars. Starting in 2017, Orion spacecraft will be paired with the agency's Space Launch System (SLS), a massive rocket in development more powerful than the Saturn V that propelled astronauts to the moon.
Although EFT-1 will focus largely on testing the Orion spacecraft, it also will aid the teams designing and building the SLS, said Todd May, program manager for the new booster.
"There are a lot of things about this mission that helps SLS," May said. "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."
The SLS team, based at Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala., designed and built an adapter ring for this mission that will connect Orion's broad base with the much narrower Delta IV second stage.
While the Orion spacecraft takes shape inside the Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy, the heat shield's skin and skeleton have been finished. The heat-resistant coating will be applied next month and the all-important component will be shipped to Kennedy in July for attachment to the spacecraft.
NASA has designed the mission to evaluate how the spaceship behaves in 10 of the 16 highest risk areas for a crew. Avionics systems, software and the myriad other elements that go into a spacecraft are expected to get a rigorous workout. Those elements are making their way into the spacecraft in a careful procession as Lockheed Martin builds up Orion into a working spacecraft.
"We all have these great (computer) models but when you fly in the real environment, does it behave as you expect," said Geyer.
The flight will begin a series of flight tests for the Orion and Space Launch System programs as the agency moves toward launching astronauts into space in 2021. Orion is scheduled to fly a second test mission in 2017 aboard the first Space Launch System booster.
Along the way, engineers also will conduct smaller-scale flight tests to evaluate the performance of specific systems such as the escape rocket designed to pull a crew out of harm's way in the event of an emergency during launch and ascent.
The progression from concept drawings to working with mockups and replicas to building the actual spacecraft reinvigorates the teams.
"I think it helps keep the team's morale up and you want to see a steady beat of successes as you move forward... Now we're actually doing it. It shows you that we're putting the expertise into actually making it happen," NASA officials added.