After enduring searing temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit during Orion’s first flight test in December 2014, the spacecraft’s heat shield is just about ready to cool off at the Hydro Impact Basin at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
Serving as Orion’s protector, the heat shield is designed to keep astronauts and the spacecraft safe from the heat it experiences when reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.
The 16.5-foot diameter heat shield arrived at Langley in the early hours of June 4, in preparation for water-impact tests next year. During testing, engineers will integrate the heat shield onto an Orion crew module mockup and drop-test the spacecraft to simulate scenarios for parachute landings with different wind conditions and wave heights the spacecraft could experience when landing in the Pacific Ocean on future missions.
“It’s exciting to have the Orion heat shield here,” said project engineer Jim Corliss. “It’s the largest of its kind and has reentered the atmosphere from a high energy orbit. It’s gratifying to know it’ll be used on our country’s next crewed spacecraft.”
Prior to its arrival at Langley, the heat shield traveled through space and then from the West Coast to the East Coast, making stops at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
Engineers from Marshall, Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, and Johnson Space Center in Houston took samples of the heat shield’s outer material, known as Avcoat, which burns away when heated and prevents the spacecraft from feeling anything but cool. The samples will be used to examine the char layers and degree of erosion during Orion’s first mission.
With no down time ahead, Langley engineers plan to dive right into inspecting the heat shield and perform pre-integration activities, according to project manager Ellen Carpenter.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us and a lot of people involved,” Carpenter added. “We have a critical test schedule.”
After preliminary work comes the tough part.
“The heat shield and the Orion mockup were not designed and built to be mated together so we have interface pieces that we’ve put in place,” Carpenter explained. “Then we’ll instrument the heat shield with about 160 channels worth of data and do testing on the heat shield, including static and assembly testing, prior to water-impact testing.”
Lastly, the team will insert test dummies, enclose the capsule and take it to the Hydro Impact Basin for a series of eight drop tests.
Despite the workload, Carpenter feels humbled by her and her team’s purpose in the project.
“The whole purpose of the project is knowing how water landings will influence Orion,” Carpenter said. “The data we receive will be used by other NASA centers, prime contractor Lockheed Martin, and other partners to prepare for future Orion missions to places yet explored. It’s exciting to be a part of.”