EFT-1 Orion parts set for closeout welds – Next parachute test in April

by Chris Bergin

The Orion Program is continuing to push forward at a lively pace, as the first MPCV (Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle) set to launch into space heads into the final pathfinder welds, ahead of closeout work. While work continues on the Exploration Flight Test -1 (EFT-1) Orion, the critical parachute system is set for another drop test in April, following its recent success at the end of February.


Teams at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans are enjoying a smooth processing flow for the first space-worthy Orion, a critical construction effort, as engineers and technicians carry out numerous firsts.

It’s no surprise that the welds on the EFT-1 Orion are called “pathfinder” welds, as this vehicle will provide a fabrication roadmap for future Orions that will be built at the former home of the Shuttle External Tank (ET).

Large pieces of the EFT-1 Orion are placed around the construction area at MAF, parts which are now showing the appearance of a spacecraft.

And while it was seen as a little overblown for NASA to compare Orion’s first welds with that of the birth of the orbiter fleet at Palmdale, California – mainly because of the scale of the beautiful winged vehicles in comparison to the small Orion capsules – the NASA fanfare surrounding that event last summer is understandable when viewing photos of the primed hardware preparing to be mated together into the EFT-1 Orion.

Indeed, this is the first new American human spacecraft to be born since Endeavour was constructed – largely of made out of structural spares as she prepared to replace her fallen sister, Challenger – back in 1991.

Because the EFT-1 Orion is the first ‘real’ Orion to be built, the process is taking longer than it will when these spacecraft starts to roll off the production lines later this decade.

However, internal progress reports have noted a surprising lack of any major issues during MAF’s efforts.

Instrumentation has since been placed on parts of the EFT-1 Orion, as the vehicle closes in on closeout welds.

“The Cone Assembly and Aft Bulkhead Strain Gages have been installed on the Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) Crew Module at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans. Instrumentation is currently in work on the EFT-1 Tunnel, Backbone and Center Panel,” noted the latest Orion update on L2 (L2 Link to Presentation).

“The Michoud team completed the Gore Assembly to the Barrel pathfinder weld and the Center Panel to the Aft Structural Assembly Pathfinder welds. The closeout weld will be the next pathfinder weld in preparation for final closeout weld operations. Fit check, laser alignment and assembly of the back bone panels, brackets and fasteners for the EFT-1 Crew Module have been completed.”

While this is all good news, Orion needs to stay on track and on budget, not least because the program has already been in effect for years – with billions of dollars already spent on what has been a problematic childhood, as the spacecraft struggled to get along with its initial launch vehicle of choice, Ares I.

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With Orion aborted by President Obama’s FY2011 budget proposal, it was given a second life via the 2010 Authorization Act, renewing its role as a Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) vehicle.

The Constellation Program (CxP) always intended Orion to be the spacecraft of choice for missions into deep space. However, this involved the later Block II Orion, as the vehicle was initially targeted for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) missions to the International Space Station (ISS) by the middle of this decade.

Although Orion is classed as a back-up for ISS flights – in the event of major disruption to the Commercial Crew program – all of the current Orion design is focused on BEO missions.

The first flight test – EFT-1 in early 2014 – will adhere to this role for the spacecraft, as a Delta IV-Heavy launches the Orion to an altitude of more than 3,600 miles.

Orion will return home at a speed almost 5,000 miles per hour faster than that endured by the Space Shuttle orbiters, providing a crucial test of the vehicle’s Thermal Protection System (TPS).

As Orion re-enters the atmosphere, it will endure temperatures almost 2,000 degrees F., with the resulting data being fed into key reviews of the spacecraft’s design, allowing the data to be input in a timely fashion so as to avoid any changes impacting on the 2017 debut of the Orion with the Space Launch System (SLS).

However, the EFT-1 mission isn’t just to test the heatshield, because once that element of the flight has been completed, Orion will require the use of drogue and main parachutes to slow its descent, en-route to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

February 29 saw the latest test of this critical system, as the second generation Parachute Test Vehicle (PTV) and Capsule Parachute Assembly System (CPAS) worked as advertised during its deployment from a US Air Force C-17 aircraft – and subsequent landing at the US Army Proving Grounds in Yuma, Arizona.

An Air Force C-17 plane dropped a test version of Orion from an altitude of 25,000 feet. Orion’s drogue chutes were deployed between 15,000 and 20,000 feet, followed by the pilot parachutes, which deployed the main landing parachutes. Orion landed on the desert floor at a speed of almost 17 mph, well below the maximum designed touchdown speed of the spacecraft,” noted the Orion status update (L2).

“The test examined how Orion’s wake, the disturbance of the air flow behind the vehicle, would affect the performance of the parachute system. Parachutes perform optimally in smooth air that allows proper lift. A wake of choppy air can reduce parachute inflation. The test was the first to create a wake mimicking the full-size Orion vehicle and complete system.”

With this success under their belts, the Orion parachute team are already into preparations for the next test, which is scheduled for some time in April on a different test vehicle.

(Images: Via NASA, L2 and L2 Historical). L2’s new Orion and Future Spacecraft specific L2 section 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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