Orion program deep into production, processing and testing for EFT-1

by Chris Bergin

After a somewhat unhappy childhood, that included an abrupt and costly cancellation, the Orion program is now full speed ahead for its Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1). The Orion tasked with the 2014 mission is now being outfitted in Florida, as adaptor hardware related to EFT-1 – and its debut on the Space Launch System (SLS) – heads towards production.

Orion Progress:

The recent arrival of the EFT-1 Orion at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) was a key milestone ahead of its flight atop of a Delta IV-H from Cape Canaveral.

The team at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans completed their work with the final closeout weld activities on the EFT-1 flight vehicle structure, all without any major production issues on the new vehicle. The final weld joined the cone to the barrel, which completed the pressure vessel structure of the spacecraft.

The entire construction was completed in less than a year, earning the Orion EFT-1 Crew Module Welding Team a Space Flight Awareness (SFA) award for their efforts.

Following welding operations, the vehicle was shipped to KSC for final assembly and systems outfitting for flight inside the revamped Operations and Checkout (O&C) building.

This building will serve the Orion fleet for final assembly, prior to heading to another facility to be prepared for rollout to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for integration processing with the Space Launch System (SLS).

Engineers have also been seen working on an Orion mock up inside the VAB, using it to test and validate Ground Support Equipment (GSE) “attach and lifting” procedures.

For EFT-1, the Orion will roll to the nearby Cape Canaveral for integration with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV-H.

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New Orion spacecraft will continue to arrive “naked”, prior to the O&C work that will include the application of heat shielding Thermal Protection Systems (TPS), avionics and other subsystems.

TPS tile production for the backshell of the EFT-1 Orion began in February, while the composite carrier structure for the crew module heatshield has completed the layup and curing process ahead of schedule.

Preparations for removal of the skin from the tool have already begun, with the next step relating to the assembly of the titanium skeleton assembly, which will then be integrated with the skin.

After the TPS completes its role of protecting Orion from the environment of re-entry, the parachute system will be tasked with slowing the vehicle down for splashdown.

Numerous drop tests have been carried out over the life of the Orion program, with the pace increased this year, all resulting in successful tests.

The next major airdrop took place on July 18 at the US Army’s Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona – using the parachute test vehicle (PTV) representing the Orion capsule, which is sporting the redesigned Capsule Parachute Assembly System (CPAS). This latest test examined the effects of one main parachute skipping their first reefing stage.

The PTV team completed the installation and final checkout of carriage platform separation system pyrotechnics and avionics, installation of the PTV programmer parachute and final checkout of PTV avionics.

The test vehicle was then dropped out of the back of a C-17 aircraft.

Orion’s drogue chutes were deployed between 15,000 feet and 20,000 feet, followed by the pilot parachutes, which deployed the main landing parachutes. Orion descended about 25 feet per second, well below its maximum designed touchdown speed, when it landed on the desert floor.

“Across the country, NASA and industry are moving forward on the most advanced spacecraft ever designed, conducting drop and splashdown tests, preparing ground systems, designing software and computers and paving the way for the future of exploration,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“Today’s parachute test in Yuma is an important reminder of the progress being made on Orion and its ultimate mission – enabling NASA to meet the goal of sending humans to an asteroid and Mars.”

Meanwhile, with one eye on the future, engineers with the SLS Spacecraft & Payload Integration team at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) are preparing to build the spacecraft adapter that will allow for Orion to be integrated on to the Delta IV-H. This hardware will also serve as part of the MPCV (Orion) Stage Adaptor (MSA) between Orion and the SLS.

This simple assembly consists of a bottom ring that can attach to either the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) or ICPS (Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage), with a top ring that attaches to the bottom of the Orion Spacecraft Adapter.

It consists of a dome-shaped diaphragm to separate the top of the DCSS from Orion, while cables that will run between Orion and the Delta IV on EFT-1 – or the initial SLS configuration – run through the inside of the MSA.

The work is being carried out by master machinists in the Mechanical Fabrication Branch of the Space Systems Department are using the world’s largest multi-axis milling machine to build the ring prototypes in Building 4705.

“By leveraging the state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind milling machine installed at the Marshall Center for building hardware, there’s going to be a cost savings,” said Patrick Hull, the multi-purpose crew vehicle/stage adapter lead designer for SLS, speaking to the Marshall Star. “The manufacturing team who run this facility are demonstrating their ability to produce large-scale flight hardware built in-house.”

The actual hardware that will fly with EFT-1 is yet to be produced, although this will occur in the Autumn, after production of the “pathfinder article” allowed the machinists to provide the “proof-of-concept” to the EFT-1 and SLS teams.

“This proof-of-concept was delivered ahead of schedule and we’re excited about the progress we’re making,” added Brent Gaddes, adapter subsystem manager with SLS. “By delivering them early, we have more time to double and even triple-check our process and design.”

Work on the pathfinder article saw engineers build rings and barrel panels from scrap metal to practice the welding operation, before the MSFC shop begins welding on actual flight hardware. In parallel, the shop ordered rings and barrel panels for the flight article and a Static Test Article from commercial vendors.

When the shop complete their practice welds later this year, engineers will begin welding together the STA and flight articles.

While EFT-1 is mainly an Orion test, Garry Lyles – chief engineer for the Space Launch System at MSFC – noted that Delta IV-H mission will provide useful data to the SLS team.

“When you fly a vehicle for the first time you want to know as much as possible and the EFT-1 mission will allow our SLS team to learn about the structural, mechanical and electrical interfaces – the internal environment between Orion and the launch vehicle.

“Our team will capture flight data that will be useful to calibrate guidance, navigation and control algorithms and structural loads for SLS; separation dynamics between Orion and the launch vehicle; and overall vehicle stability – all vital data to reduce risk and increase reliability and sustainability.”

(Images: L2’s Orion and SLS Special Sections, and NASA)

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