NASA brought out the big guns this week to rally the Orion workforce with an address aimed at highlighting the “huge amount of progress” that has been made on the spacecraft, urging workers to avoid getting “distracted” by budget uncertainties. Orion is moving ever-closer to its first trip into space, with the Exploration Flight Test -1 (EFT-1) still on track for September, 2014.
Orion’s Troublesome Childhood:
Orion, which started life as the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), suffered from a series of design changes throughout its early life as part of the Constellation Program (CxP).
While the changes were part of the natural evolution of any new spacecraft, the main challenges were associated with the launch vehicle to which it was married, the Ares I.
With “mass reserves” at a premium, shortfalls in Ares I’s performance forced Orion to shed weight in a painful and obstructive series of exercises, almost immediately causing the CEV to reduce its diameter size by 0.5 meters , soon followed by its Service Module being stripped down by up to 50 percent of its original mass.
Provided with the name “Orion”, engineers at Lockheed Martin – the vehicle’s prime contractor – were told to further reduce the spacecraft’s mass, resulting in a cull of the amount of propellant the vehicle would carry during International Space Station (ISS) missions – the initial role for Orion.
In what seemed to be a never-ending series of demands, Orion lost its ability to use an air bag system to land on terra firma, reverting to Apollo-style water landings.
Other advanced systems – part of the “Apollo on Steroids” ideal of creating a super capsule far more capable than its predecessor – were also removed from the vehicle.
With frustrations growing between Ares I – which also claimed it was being hindered by the design changes – and Orion, project managers held a summit meeting in 2007 and decided they would strip Orion down to a “minimum requirement” spacecraft, thus allowing Ares I some breathing space to work within several thousand pounds of mass reserves.
Known as the Zero Base Vehicle (ZBV) effort, Orion underwent a mass ‘scrubbing’ process to reduce it to a minimum weight, ahead of the reapplication of some of the deleted capability, element by element. The project noted it was using the Block 2 “Lunar Orion” for this exercise, as much as the results were to be fed into the Block 1 “ISS Orion”.
With CxP starting to show signs it was going to have slip in its schedule, an All Hands meeting at the end of 2007 referenced the need for “teamwork and chemistry,” with then-Ares program manager Steve Cook warning “Failure is an option during development,” while a System Definition Review (SDR) Board meeting noted major “red” risk in controlling Orion’s weight to match Ares I performance.
In 2008, the Orion Vehicle Engineering Integration Working Group (OVEIWG) began to reinstall some of the “critical capability” back on to the vehicle, without breaching strict mass requirements. Some engineers joked the Group was providing the role of Ken Mattingly, when he juggled limited amps as he created a power up sequence for the crippled Apollo 13 capsule via testing in a simulator.
Ironically, it was Apollo 13 Flight Director Gene Kranz who issued a stirring speech in an internal video (available in L2) to the Constellation workforce that year, noting how the Apollo workforce “had to learn to leave our egos at the door and become a team, so we became one.”
By the middle of 2008, a new Design Analysis Cycle (DAC) was called for – in tandem with efforts to resolve Thrust Oscillation (TO) issues – resulting in a major slip to the vehicle’s Preliminary Design Review (PDR) to 2009.
With the additional stresses of reduced budget funding for Constellation, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) called for the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee to take place in 2009.
Better known as the Augustine Commission, the review highlighted CxP’s critical issues, ultimately resulting in its cancellation by the Obama administration via the FY2011 Budget Proposal.
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Orion’s Second Life:
Orion was saved from the cull – albeit in stages, including a near-pointless role as a very expensive lifeboat for the ISS – before the 2010 Authorization Act refocused Orion on Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) missions.
With NASA 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,” the EFT-1 Orion enjoyed a successful build in New Orleans, prior to heading to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for outfitting.
The launch date for EFT-1 has slipped a few times, moving from its 2013 launch date, to September, 2014.
However, all elements of the mission have remained on track for some time, with the Delta IV-Heavy tasked with lofting the EFT-1 Orion on a multi-hour mission set for shipping next March.
The test will allow NASA to evaluate Orion’s performance and integrity, in preparation for the spacecraft’s future deep-space expeditions.
Orion will be lofted to altitude of more than 3,600 miles, prior to a return to Earth on a high-speed re-entry at more than 20,000 mph, with the results feeding into Orion’s key Critical Design Review (CDR), set for the middle of 2015.
Orion Rallying Call:
While Orion is showing signs of holding to its schedule, at least for EFT-1 and the first two missions with the Space Launch System (SLS) – notably the only two SLS missions that are currently on the books – funding concerns are never too far away from Orion’s doorstep.
Only just this month, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General issued a depressing report about schedule and cost concerns related to long-term funding for Orion.
By way of a reaction, NASA’s top brass in the Exploration Systems office issued a statement (available in L2) to the Orion workforce, telling them not to get distracted by such negativity.
Citing William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and Dan Dumbacher, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems, the memo noted a “the importance (in) focusing on our Exploration Systems development successes, and not getting too distracted by budget uncertainties.”
With follow-on remarks from Orion manager Mark Geyer, the team were encouraged to focus on their achievements, as they head into the T-12 month mark for EFT-1.
“As you know, we are working at a fever pitch to finish EFT-1,” noted Mr. Geyer. “To date, manufacturers from across the country have delivered over 66,000 parts to the Kennedy Space Center, where Crew Module, Service Module and Launch Abort System assembly are all well underway.
“In Massachusetts, our heatshield team is holding to their plan with the final Avcoat gunning/cure cycle projected to finish at the end of the month. In Denver, another key software delivery was made to the Integrated Test Lab.
“We fired our propulsion system and tested our service module fairings in California, and the Orion parachute system performed successfully at record altitude in Arizona.
“Last week, the team conducted a successful test with the US Navy in Virginia to demonstrate EFT-1 flight article recovery. In Alabama, the EFT-1 Delta IV rocket is also on schedule for launch in just 13 months.”
Classing the notes as just a sample of the great work that is being accomplished everyday across this country, Mr. Geyer added that it was impressive to see the huge amount of progress in the status reports and recent program photos, before stressing the importance of EFT-1’s mission.
“It’s critical that we finish well on the EFT-1 work so that we have a successful test flight and keep momentum on our EM-1 design work, program to program efforts and European Space Agency integration.”
Switching gears to the budget concerns, Mr. Geyer added such worries are not unusual, given NASA projects are forever having to survive in the associated political arena.
“Of course, all of us would feel better if there were more certainty in our long term plans. Discussions in the media on the federal budget impact and our mission can cause us to wonder what’s going to happen next. It’s important to remember that human spaceflight programs are often subjected to uncertainty given the lifecycle of these programs and their significance to our political leaders.
“Some may look at the operational stage of a program like the ISS and think that getting there was so simple, but actually, there were a lot of changes for ISS and STS during their development. We need to remember that we’re building a capability that serves our country with a lot of options including destinations that will enable the coming decades of human exploration.”
In a reference back to Orion’s troublesome early years of development, Mr Geyer closed by referencing how the Orion team are used to challenges, before thanking the teams for their commitment.
“We have shown through all the perturbations that the Orion team is extremely innovative in meeting challenges. Our job is to build Orion and get our country flying in space and exploring the solar system. NASA leadership continues to convey to me their belief in the Orion system and this team specifically.
“It’s an exciting time and I feel very fortunate to be a part of this great endeavor. Thank you for your continued dedication to Orion and the exploration of space.”
(Images: Via L2 content from L2′s Orion specific L2 section, which includes, presentations, videos, graphics and internal – interactive with actual SLS and Orion engineers – with updates available on no other site. Other images via NASA)
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