Although the space program finds itself lacking long-term direction, managers have marked a major milestone for their next crew transport, as the Orion Flight Test (OFT-1) vehicle began construction at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans. This first “flight worthy” Orion is set to launch on top of a Delta IV Heavy in the summer of 2013.
Although the test flight will be unmanned, prior to the first humans to ride on Orion in 2021 – if the only NASA schedule currently available becomes a reality – NASA are representing the start of construction as “the first new NASA spacecraft built to take humans to orbit since space shuttle Endeavour left the factory in 1991.”
That is a bold statement for NASA to make, given the history of Endeavour’s birth, which came after United States Congress passed legislation officially authorizing the construction of new Space Shuttle orbiter to fill the manifest needs left in the wake of the loss of her late sister, Challenger.
As Chris Gebhardt wrote – in his superb historical review of Endeavour’s life – serious consideration was given to refitting the test orbiter Enterprise (OV-101) and having her join the Shuttle fleet as an operational, space-worthy vehicle.
This idea was quickly turned down, however, due to cost and time requirements. Essentially, it was deemed cheaper and faster to simply build a new orbiter than to refit the Enterprise.
Taking advantage of structural spares created during the construction campaigns of OV-103/Discovery and OV-104/Atlantis, construction of NASA’s newest orbiter, known officially as OV-105 (Orbiter Vehicle 105), gained a significant time advantage by making use of these structural spares.
To this end, the start of structural assembly of OV-105’s Crew Module began on February 15, 1982 – over five years before authorization to build OV-105 was issued. Specifically, the contract to build NASA’s newest, and last, Space Shuttle orbiter was issued to Rockwell International on July 31, 1987.
Construction started that year, before, on April 25, 1991 – as referenced by NASA in their Orion statement – the Space Shuttle orbiter Endeavour was proudly rolled out of her Palmdale construction facility by her dedicated workforce.
Orion – otherwise known as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) – is a very different type of spaceship, one which will never taste neither the fame, nor the missions, of the aforementioned shuttle orbiter. However, the recent progress does mark the continued ramp up in Orion work, following a troubled childhood of redesigns, mass stripping exercises and even a temporary cancellation.
With its new role as a Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration vehicle, Orion is one of the few elements of NASA’s future ambitions which seems to have a level of focus, as it looks forward to undefined – but likely – missions to Near Earth Objects (NEO) and potentially – one day – being involved in a crewed mission to Mars.
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And while the far more complex Endeavour was constructed in under four years, Orion has spent even longer on powerpoints – starting live as the CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle) eating up its share of the since-cancelled Constellation Project (CxP) billions of dollars, only to see SpaceX’s Dragon capsule rise to the forefront of taking over what was originally set to be an Orion’s initial domain – Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
As Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston, described it, “the Orion team has maintained a steady focus on progress, and we now are beginning to build hardware for spaceflight.”
The first welds were completed Friday using an innovative new friction stir welding process, developed especially for Orion construction. The process creates a seamless, leak-proof bond that has proven stronger and higher in quality than can be achieved with conventional welding.
“This marks a major milestone in NASA’s ambitious plans to send humans farther into space than the nation has ever been before,” added NASA spokesman David Weaver, Headquarters, Washington. “We’re not only working to send people into deep space, we are putting people to work right here in America.”
After welding is completed at Michoud, the Orion spacecraft orbital test article will be shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the heat shield will be installed. At Kennedy, it will undergo final assembly and checkout operations for flight.
The latest notes for the flight test revealed that Orion will conduct a multi-hour orbit test, launching in July, 2013 on a purchased Delta IV-H, including avionics tests through to heat shield and parachute performance – validating many high risk systems for the Orion spacecraft.
During its orbital testing, Orion will be riding on the Delta IV-H Upper Stage, and will be without Solar Panels, instead running off internal batteries.
The launch date is at risk of the continued political games which are mainly tagetting Orion’s eventual launch vehicle of choice, the Space Launch System (SLS), brinkmanship which is – by proxy – threatening to damage the entire exploration schedule yet further.
Meanwhile, over in Denver, Lockheed Martin are continuing their work on the Orion Ground Test Article (GTA), with preparations for the third acoustic test making progress.
“The Ground Test Article (GTA) Launch Abort Vehicle was taken out of the test chamber and disassembled at the Lockheed Martin Waterton facility in Denver, Colorado,” according to processing notes on L2’s Orion section.
“The team is now in the process of outfitting the launch abort system with the fillet and ogive panels for the next test configuration. The next round of acoustic testing will begin in mid-September.”
Parachute Testing has also been performed in Texas A&M University’s Wind Tunnel, using a 10 percent subscale Orion and drogue canopy.
“The parachute assembly team recently conducted a low speed wind tunnel test at the Texas A&M University subsonic wind tunnel to investigate the flow in the wake of the crew module and how it affects the performance of a single scaled drogue parachute,” added the notes.
“Laser velocimeter and infrared measurements were taken of the air flow to investigate new methods to validate Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) analysis of the flow behind the crew module.
“A 10 percent sub-scale single drogue canopy was used for the test at various crew module angles of attack, parachute reefing stages, and parachute trailing distances to acquire data that will be used to determine the location of the parachute vent and shape of the canopy.”
(Images: Via L2 content 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/)