Dec. 5 marks a year since the successful first deep-space flight of NASA’s Orion on Exploration Flight Test-1, a test that took the uncrewed spacecraft 3,600 miles into space and safely returned it to Earth. In the year since the flight, teams around the country have taken apart the spacecraft to learn everything possible from having flown the first human rated vehicle in deep space in over 40 years. Meanwhile, teams across the nation and in Europe have continued to make substantial progress toward the next flight of Orion and the first flight of the Space Launch System rocket into deep space, thousands of miles beyond the moon, on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).
The 2014 flight was a big step on NASA’s journey to Mars, providing insights engineers have used to inform how they design, develop and build Orion that will help astronauts pioneer deep space destinations. Teams learned as much about what it takes to build and process Orion as they did about successfully flying it in space, and the flight test yielded more than 500 gigabytes of data to prove that the spacecraft’s many systems and subsystems performed as expected.
After NASA returned the spacecraft back to Kennedy Space Center, Orion’s flown heat shield was shipped to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where its outer layer was removed for analysis before then being sent to the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The heat shield protected the Orion spacecraft during its 4,000 degree reentry. At Langley, teams have fitted it to a test article and are preparing for a slate of tests in Langley’s Hydro Impact Basin that will evaluate how it fares in different potential splashdown scenarios. Overall, engineers developing Orion’s thermal protection system have been refining the spacecraft’s heat shield design and manufacturing process.
In September, the flown crew module was shipped to the Littleton, Colorado, facility of Lockheed Martin, NASA’s prime contractor Orion, to evaluate a new acoustic technology to determine if the method can produce enough energy to simulate the acoustic loads Orion will experience during launch and ascent atop SLS. That month, technicians at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, also began welding together Orion’s pressure vessel, the underlying structure of the crew module for EM-1. The majority of the welds have been completed and the crew module is set to be shipped to Kennedy Space Center in Florida early next year for outfitting and processing.
In November, NASA welcomed the arrival of a structural test article of the ESA (European Space Agency)-provided service module for testing at Glenn Research Center’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio. NASA work with ESA on the element expands an already strong partnership and ensures continued international collaboration on the journey to Mars. Next year, engineers will test the hardware to make sure the service module, which provides Orion’s in-space propulsion, power, air and water, can with stand the powerful launch into space.
Engineers also have made strides to refine the spacecraft’s design in other areas. Orion’s heat shield will be built in blocks for the next mission, rather than as a monolithic structure, as a result of the insights gained testing the design in space. On the next flight, Orion will experience colder temperatures in space and hotter temperatures upon reentry than during EFT-1, and data from last year’s test flight is helping NASA improve the design of the heat shield to meet this challenge. Engineers also have reduced the Orion crew module’s mass, evaluated design changes to its protective fairings that encase the service module and continue to evaluate its parachute system through testing.
They also have marked two important programmatic milestones leading up to the spacecraft’s next flight. The Critical Design Review was carried out over a 10-week period and included a review of common aspects of the spacecraft for EM-1 and the spacecraft for EM-2, the first Orion mission with astronauts, such as the spacecraft’s structures, pyrotechnics, launch abort system, guidance, navigation and control and software, among other elements. With the design confirmed, work is now underway to manufacture the parts and assemble the spacecraft. Agency officials also completed a separate, rigorous technical and programmatic review, confirming continued support of the program and establishing NASA’s commitment to the program’s technical, costs and schedule baseline.
Next year, NASA will make more critical progress building Orion for its next mission, continuing to build on the foundation of the spacecraft’s successful first trip to space.