NASA’s first space-worthy Orion spacecraft is preparing for her next key milestone in the flow towards December’s Exploration Flight Test -1 (EFT-1) mission. The completed Orion, now stacked on the Service Module, will be moved from her home in the Operations & Checkout (O&C) building this week, ahead of fueling operations.
It’s been three years since the first panels of the EFT-1 Orion were welded together at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans.
Then known as the Orion Flight Test -1 (OFT-1) vehicle, the construction marked the first new NASA spacecraft to be built to take humans to orbit since space shuttle Endeavour left her Palmdale facility in 1991.
Around a year later, the bare bones of the new spacecraft entered a lengthy outfitting process inside the famous O&C building at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
As many as 400 members of the Orion team have been involved in the final assembly and integration operations on the spacecraft, under the guidance of Orion’s main contractor, Lockheed Martin.
The outfitting operations involved key additions to the spacecraft, such as the installation of secondary structures, as Orion started to look more like the vehicle depicted in mission videos and images.
Orion was then powered up for the first time in October, 2013 – as operators in the Test Launch and Control Center (TLCC) introduced software scripts to the crew module’s main control computers via thousands of wires and electrical ground support equipment.
The power up allowed for engineers to then install additional harnessing, wiring and electronics onto the crew module – completing the avionics system that serves as the eyes, ears and brains of the spacecraft.
This testing was completed in April of this year, marking Orion’s “awakening” and confirmation she is ready for her lofty mission goals during the trip into space.
The December test flight will allow NASA to evaluate Orion’s performance and integrity, in preparation for the spacecraft’s future deep-space expeditions.
Orion will be lofted by the United Space Alliance (ULA) Delta IV-H – a rocket that was shipped to the Cape earlier this year – to an 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 2015.
A key factor will be the performance of Orion’s heat shield, which is an Avcoat and Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator – with a technical name of AVCO 5026-39 HCG (Filled Epoxy Novalac in Fiberglass-Phenolic Honeycomb).
The heat shield completed its journey to KSC at the end of 2013, ahead of integration with the EFT-1 Orion.
The backshell area of the spacecraft is covered in several hundred tiles, exotically named as TUFI coated AETB-8 tiles, bonded to 10 panels of composite laminate face sheets on a titanium honeycomb core.
The first of these tiles was manufactured in 2012, with the historic milestone beginning with Tile 875-1 on Panel H of the backshell.
Originally, the baseline for the backshell was a SLA-561V material with plasma sprayed aluminum coating for on-orbit thermal control. However, the AETB-8 tiles provide more mass-efficient MMOD (Micro-Meteoroid Orbital Debris) protection.
As such, panel tile thickness, substrate facesheet thickness, and core density are tailored for thermal and structural load, and MMOD requirements.
The tiles were mechanically attached to the pressure vessel with thermal isolating brackets along their edges, a process that was practised on an entire C panel for the Orion Ground Test Article (GTA).
Providing Orion with a sporty appearance, the black tiling is now fully installed on the Orion – which also now sports an American flag.
With the vehicle now ready for her next processing milestone, the since-mated crew and service module will be transferred together on Thursday to another facility for fueling, before moving again for the installation of the Launch Abort System (LAS).
ATK’s inert motor will be used to simulate the same weight, structure and aerodynamics of the live motor configuration that will ride on the Space Launch System (SLS). It arrived at KSC in February, 2013.
Once all of these elements have been mated, the spacecraft will be complete and ready to stack on top of the Delta IV Heavy rocket that will carry it into space on its first flight at the end of this year.
The launch remains on track for the morning of December 4, launching from the Delta IV-H’s home pad of Space Launch Complex -37B (SLC-37B) at Cape Canaveral.
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