OFT-1: NASA gearing up for Orion’s 2013 debut via Delta IV Heavy

by Chris Bergin

The efforts relating to the debut launch of Orion – otherwise known as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) – on a “multi-hour” test flight are ramping up, as managers discuss the preliminary objectives, which may include a “human capable” version of the spacecraft being tested. A launch date of July, 2013 has been set, with the Delta IV Heavy assigned to the role of launch vehicle.


NASA’s next human-rated vehicle has suffered from a troublesome childhood, with billions of dollars already spent on a spacecraft which has been pushed and pulled via problems with its original launch vehicle – Ares I – resulting in several mass-stripping exercises and design headaches, before finding itself part of resulting cull of the Constellation Program (CxP).

Brought back for a pointless role as a lifeboat on the International Space Station (ISS), Orion required additional political support via the 2010 Authorization Act to return to a more fitting role, as a Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration vehicle.

Orion is being designed for rides uphill on the Space Launch System (SLS) – a Shuttle Derived (SD) Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) which utilizes elements from the Constellation and Shuttle programs.

However, the vehicle’s status remains convoluted, as NASA’s leadership continue to delay an announcement on what is a chosen design via studies – and most recently – independent cost assessments, at the same time as HQ-authored documentation cite an impossible schedule where the first manned flight is manifested as late as 2021 – although this timeline is cited to be a “worst case” scenario.

It was initially hoped Orion would be flown on an early version of the SLS, prior to the timeline showing the HLV would avoid a staged test program, instead beginning life as a 70mt launcher in the second half of the decade, which would serve as the baseline configuration until it became a 130mt version.

Because Orion is significantly further along in the development process, an unmanned test flight requires another ride into orbit, with the Delta IV-Heavy chosen as the preferred option, allowing for a 2013 test in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) on “an existing vehicle” – as Orion continues to push through its test program.

“The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) spacecraft is making great progress. There has recently been drop tests of the Orion boilerplate test article at the Langley Research Center (LaRC),” noted Orion status notes (L2).

“These tests used a relatively low impact angle case at chute out conditions to represent one of the highest expected load cases for the heat shield and peak acceleration in the vehicle X-axis, which will be a key anchor point for the analysis models for future testing.”

Known as OFT-1 (Orion, or Orbital – given the name change to MPCV – Flight Test), the jointly operated mission between NASA’s Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) and Orion’s prime contractor Lockheed Martin will charge the spacecraft with making several orbits of the planet, prior to a splashdown in the Pacific.

As seen in a rare internal artistic impression of the vehicle (L2), Orion would be riding on the Delta IV-H Upper Stage, and will be without Solar Panels, instead running off internal batteries.

“There has been a flurry of activity in the MPCV Program in the last few months. First, the new MPCV program will use the existing Orion Spacecraft design and contract for its human exploration spacecraft,” added MOD “8th Floor” notes (L2). 

“MOD has submitted and MPCV has approved a MOD budget for FY12 and 13. This budget in 12 and 13 is focused on the Orion Flight Test 1 (OFT-1) scheduled for July, 2013.

“This will be a multi-hour orbit test of the Orion Spacecraft. From avionics to heat shield and parachute performance, this flight test will validate many high risk systems for the Orion spacecraft. MOD is heavily involved in this flight test.”

With MOD managers embedded in the Lockheed Martin Test and Verification team, MOD System Integration Lead positions are being created at Lockheed Martin’s Denver base.

Similar positions in Houston and Florida are also being created, with the aim to have lead managers in place by October, ahead of the OFT-1 Orion arriving at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) half a year later.

“(The) Orion (Project) has three vehicles. First Orion test vehicle has completed drop tests at Langley,” the 8th Floor notes continued.

“The second ground test vehicle is in Denver and is scheduled to undergo acoustics and loads testing.

“Testing results to flow down to the third OFT-1 Orion vehicle which is scheduled to arrive in Florida in March (2012).”

The Orion for OFT-1 will begin construction later this month at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, prior to its shipping to Florida next year, where it will be readied for the test flight.

Unlike the Ares I-X test launch with a boilerplate Orion, the launch will not take place at KSC – given it’s riding on a Delta IV-H – meaning it will be transported from KSC’s Operations and Checkout Building to Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) for mating with the EELV.

“The Lockheed Martin (LM) Test and Verification team, which will lead the systems integration for the flight test article build,” the notes added. “The Orion Flight Test Vehicle is at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) and the first weld is scheduled to start on August 22.

“Once the structure has been welded, this Flight Test Vehicle will be transported to the KSC O&C building where it will be assembled for the OFT-1 Flight,” the notes added.

Some elements of the vehicle’s make up are still under discussion, with references to a “human capable” version of Orion, potentially resulting in OFT-1 including a Launch Abort System (LAS), which is also in the midst of testing.

“Preparations are underway to begin integration of the Orion MPCV Launch Abort System with the Crew Module for acoustic testing. The tests will be conducted in the Reverberant Acoustics Laboratory (RAL) at the Lockheed Martin Waterton facility near Denver, Colorado,” MOD 8th Floor Orion notes added.

“The Orion stack will be exposed to a series of acoustic tests of increasing decibels that simulate the sound pressure levels that the vehicle will encounter during launch, which can exceed 160 decibels.

“Team in Denver discussing forward strategy for OFT-1: ‘Flight-Capable’ (current) versus ‘Human-Capable’ option.”

Such a human-capable configuration would push the Orion test past the point SpaceX managed with their debut launch of the Dragon capsule last year, which did not feature an abort system.

However, it is unknown if the Orion LAS will be ready to fly in time. As such, the notes are more likely to be a reference to a full up Caution & Warning (C&W) system being active during the flight.

Such a configuration would provide useful data to the joint MOD/Lockheed Martin team, who will be conducting joint tests, which includes utilizing the Mission Control Center (MCC) in Houston.

“Once the test vehicle is assembled and at KSC, MOD is part of the final test and verification team (which will conduct) joint tests (and) will also have the MCC connected to verify nominal and contingency commands,” noted the update.

Real-Time operations of this flight test will be conducted out of the MCC, with a joint MOD, MPCV, and LM team. The modifications required for the MCC for this flight are already underway, lead (manager) will be co-chairing the OFT-1 Flight Operations Panel (FOP).”

No other tests – such as OTF-2 – are currently on the books for Orion, although the 8th Floor notes did mention that the test schedule will be evaluated in a few months time.

“This fall MOD will begin the budget process working with MPCV to define the future flights of MPCV. This activity will help define the content for MOD support for the program past the OFT-1 flight for fiscal years 14 and out.”

All such tests will be unmanned, given the Delta IV-H is not classed as a human-rated launch vehicle.

(Images: Via L2 content, ULA and NASA. This article was collated from L2′s new Orion and Future Spacecraft specific L2 section, which includes, presentations, videos, graphics and internal updates on Orion and other future spacecraft.

(L2 is – as it has been for the past several years – providing full exclusive future vehicle coverage, available no where else on the internet. To join L2, click here: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)

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