EFT-1 Orion slips to December – Allows military satellite to launch first

by Chris Bergin

Orion’s first trip into space has been delayed by nearly three months, following a manifest decision that prioritized the launch of a military satellite for the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness (GEO SSA) system. Due to manifest pressure and spacing requirements between Delta IV launches, a USAF manifest board moved to ensure to the military satellite was given the best chance of launching this year, causing Exploration Flight Test -1 (EFT-1) to move to December.


The uncrewed flight of Orion – otherwise known as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) – will be NASA’s first real step towards transitioning back to Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration, allowing the spacecraft – that will carry NASA astronauts to destinations as far away as Mars – to stretch its legs during what will be a critical test for the spacecraft.

Although this EFT-1 mission will occur several years before a crew flies in the spacecraft, the test will provide valuable early data, that can be fed into Orion’s development, thus avoiding any “late” changes to the vehicle that could cause schedule impacts.

As such, data from the mission will be directly fed into Orion’s Critical Design Review (CDR) in 2015. It is not yet known if the slip will result in the CDR being pushed to the right.

Because Orion’s launch vehicle of choice – the Space Launch System (SLS) – won’t be available for the EFT-1 mission, a Delta IV-H was purchased for the role of lofting Orion into space, with the EELV’s Upper Stage providing the second leg of sending the spacecraft into an orbital path that will mimic the vehicle’s return from a deep space mission.

Z3AThe first major rocket hardware elements arrived in Florida within the pre-scheduled timeframe, with two of the booster stages for the Delta IV-Heavy shipped to the Space Coast over the past week.

The final booster is nearing completion at the United Launch Alliance facility in Alabama, prior to its shipping next month, along with the Upper Stage. Final integration work will take place inside ULA’s Horizontal Integration Facility for processing and testing.

“This is a very exciting time for NASA,” said Bill Hill, NASA assistant deputy associate administrator for exploration systems. “EFT-1 is a big milestone for us, and is the start of venturing further into space than we ever have before. Seeing these rocket boosters roll out headed for the Cape is a testament of the hard work taking place to help further NASA’s space exploration goals.”

EFT-1 Orion with DCSSThe mission – involving two orbits to a high-apogee, with a high-energy re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere on what is a multi-hour test – will provide critical re-entry flight performance data and demonstrate early integration capabilities of the spacecraft.

The launch date has slipped numerous times. However, the September target had held firm, with the numerous elements of the flow towards launch remaining on target.

The previous slip, to September, was – as per the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) – claimed to be because the “pacing element” was the Delta IV-H itself.

The latest launch date slip – known to L2 sources since earlier this month when the USAF meeting had taken place – was the subject of a NASA level negotiations that attempted to return the mission to the September target. However, that effort failed, with the Agency now confirming the move to December.

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“The Orion team continues to work toward completing the spacecraft to be ready for a launch in September-October.  However, the initial timeframe for the launch of Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) has shifted from September-October to early December to support allowing more opportunities for launches this year,” NASA said in a release on Friday.

EFT-1 Orion with Delta IV-HNASA is currently claiming the new launch date will be December 4. However, the USAF manifest meeting placed EFT-1 on a December 15 target. A confirmed launch date is likely to be forthcoming over the coming weeks.

ULA have a very busy 2014 manifest, which wasn’t helped by a long stand down of the Delta IV caused by further investigations into an earlier Upper Stage issue.

This caused a long delay to the launch of the GPS IIF-5 satellite – which was eventually launched successfully on February 21 – and a knock on effect for the following manifest.

The first Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness system (GEO SSA) satellite – initially known as AFSPC-04 – has jumped around on the near-term manifest a number of times, to targets both before and after EFT-1. It is now assured to launch before Orion’s debut.

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