Piecing together NASA’s crewed Deep Space spacecraft

by Philip Sloss

The first Orion spacecraft that will be capable of transporting NASA astronauts into deep space is now being constructed. Although it won’t launch until 2022 at the earliest, the Exploration Mission -2 (EM-2) Orion structural pieces are being constructed and readied at AMRO in California ahead of a trip to the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans where they will be welded together to create the spacecraft.

EM-2 Orion:

As with the previous NASA crew transportation vehicle, the Space Shuttle, California is the birthplace for the EM-2 Orion, with AMRO Fabricating Corporation showing off the first structural piece of the first crewed Orion spacecraft at its facility in South El Monte, California.

The window cone panel is one of seven structural elements that will be welded together to form the pressure vessel of NASA’s human spacecraft and one of three that AMRO manufactures.

Although the Space Shuttle was fully assembled in Palmdale, California, the panels constructed at AMRO will be shipped to the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, Louisiana to get ready for welding.

Interestingly, AMRO was also involved with the Shuttle External Tanks, which were also assembled at MAF.

The window cone panel was the first structural piece completed for the Orion spacecraft that will fly Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), which is planned to be its first crewed flight on a mission around the Moon.

The cone panel is one of three that AMRO is manufacturing for each Orion crew module.

“The pressure vessel itself is seven parts, they get all welded together down at MAF,” Paul Sannes, Orion Article Manager for Lockheed Martin.

“The cone which makes that traditional cone shape out of it, three pieces make that up — there’s a window panel, there’s a hatch panel, and then there’s just a plain panel.

“So when you put this thing together, that panel will come over here and it will attach to this side and then on the other side is where the hatch panel will go.  Three welds and you’ve got a completed cone.  And then we weld that to the bulkhead, and then we weld all that to a barrel and we have a vehicle.”

The panels are made of an aluminum alloy, called 2219, a weldable aluminum, that was originally designed to be one of the first weldable aluminums in (its) early days, Sannes explained.

“We do not use 2050 on the outside of this vehicle, we do use aluminum lithium (alloy) in other places on the vehicle.

“When we put this pressure vessel together there’s what we call a backbone in the bottom of it, which gives it all the strength for the heat-shield and for hitting the ocean – that structure is all made out of that aluminum lithium, so we use those materials depending on exactly what we’re trying to get done, we make those selections.

“Weldable for the outside, high-strength for pieces on the inside that have to carry a lot of load.”

Sannes explained that each panel is machined and formed from large block of raw material.

“It starts out life about twelve-thousand pounds and when we’re all done it weighs about two-hundred, so that’s all that’s left of it,” he said.  “It started out six inches thick at the time that we started [work], 212 inches long and 108 inches wide and we formed it into that cone and then we start machining away.”

AMRO makes all three cone panels of the crew module pressure vessel; a second, almost complete panel was also on display at a recent event at the company’s facility.

“This one (the plain panel) just finished machining, it’s going to go through inspection,” Sannes said.

“It’ll go through etch and dye-pen [inspections], and they’ll paint it, prime it, so it’ll look like [the window cone panel] without the black masks.  The black masks [are] unique to the window [panels], they [have] a bunch of inserts to put in it, and then it’ll be ready to go to Michoud and it’ll be in a weld-ready condition.”

AMRO manufactures lightweight metallic structures for different aerospace applications.  Among its projects, the company supplied – as noted – structures for the Space Shuttle External Tank and continues to build structures for projects such as Atlas V and the Space Launch System, in addition to Orion.

Next Steps:

The window cone panel shipped to MAF in August and the plain cone panel was expected to make the trip this month.  The third cone panel, the hatch panel, should follow in the next month or so.

Despite the staggered shipping, work can take place on the panels as they arrive at MAF.

“One of the things we have to do is there’s instrumentation that we add during welding so that we can monitor weld shrinkage and loads induced on the part, so we’ll start immediately when we them get down there instrumenting them [and] doing fit-up to the tooling, [to] make sure that everything is good, and we’ll be ready for the last one when it comes down,” noted Sannes.

Once all the parts are at MAF, Lockheed Martin will be working to prep them for welding.

“The expectation is that we’ll have all seven of the parts there no later than the end of October and we should be into weld ops — and it’s not welding, but weld ops and being prepped to do that — officially the first of October,” Sannes added.

“We’ll get all this welded up and the expectation is that by about this time next year we’ll have a fully welded pressure vessel on its way to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to start assembly for the manned mission.”

With the delays to the EM-1 mission, it is possible that the EM-1 Orion hardware could still be in the processing area in the Operations and Checkout Facility at KSC when the EM-2 pressure vessel arrives, but Sannes also noted there’s enough room there for both.

“The EM-1 vehicle has got a trip up to Plum Brook [Station at NASA Glenn Research Center in Ohio] coming, which is going to be a bunch of environmental testing it’s going to go through,” he explained.

“The vehicle [will] essentially [be] completed at that point in time, it’ll come back to Kennedy [after testing] and shortly after coming back to Kennedy, we’ll [turn it over] to the government and the government will take it from there, it will leave the building.”

“Hopefully that all fits together, but I believe that we don’t have any issues with bringing [the EM-2 pressure vessel] in and processing [at the same time] because the tooling that this will go in doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re doing with [the EM-1] vehicle at that point in time.

“So we can mix and match down there and move things around and [we] have room to do all of that.”

(Images via Philip Sloss at AMRO and NASA).

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