The NASA Orion spacecraft that will fly the Artemis 1 uncrewed lunar orbit mission is being prepared for a crucial test series at Plum Brook Station in Ohio. Prime contractor Lockheed Martin has completed functional checkouts of the Crew and Service Module following their connection in July and are beginning several weeks of closeouts ahead of flying the spacecraft to Plum Brook.
The spacecraft will be put in an environment at Plum Brook that simulates the in-space vacuum and thermal extremes it will see when it finally flies, so the thermal protection system (TPS) for Orion has to be nearly in flight configuration. It is near the peak of Hurricane Season in the Atlantic Basin and spacecraft checkouts in the Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida were recently suspended for a week by Hurricane Dorian.
NASA and Lockheed Martin are projecting that Orion will be ready for its airplane ride to Plum Brook in the late October, early November time-frame.
Finishing functional testing in between tropical storm downtime
The spacecraft remains in the Final Assembly System Test (FAST) cell in the O&C Building at KSC. Following extensive standalone assembly and testing, the Crew Module (CM) and Service Module (SM) were mated in the cell in mid-July, first being seen on July 20 during a ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first crewed lunar landing on Apollo 11.
The functionality of both modules were tested individually during their incremental integration; over most of the last two months, Lockheed Martin and NASA have checked out the performance of mated systems.
(Photo Caption: Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana speaks at a July 20 event in the Operations and Checkout Building on the fiftieth anniversary of the first human lunar landing on Apollo 11. In the background, the Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft sits in the FAST cell where the Crew Module and Service Module were mated a few days earlier.)
“We’ve been doing a lot of testing, a bunch of functional testing, and we’re almost finished with that functional test cycle,” Jules Schneider, Lockheed Martin Orion Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations (ATLO) Director at KSC, said on September 13. “When we do finish that, which is predicted right now to finish probably Sunday or Monday, we will then start configuring the vehicle, putting things on in this case for flight because when we go to Plum Brook you want the vehicle as complete as possible.”
“We do a lot of functional testing, a bunch, at the module level,” Schneider added. “If you remember when the Vice President was here we made the announcement that the Crew Module was complete. “It was and we had done all the functional testing at the Crew Module level and at the Service Module level.”
“The only functional testing and subsequent mission testing that we have to do once we mate the two are tests that run across the CM-SM interface through the umbilical, and so functional testing happens a whole lot during the flow. The only functional testing that we’re doing now is the ones you have to do after you mate the two and then obviously the mission testing.”
The mission testing that wrapped up over the last weekend was the last set of mated tests during this part of the processing flow, taking the spacecraft through simulated phases of its upcoming mission.
“We did functional testing which is pretty specific to exercise all the systems, make sure each system functions the way it should,” Scott Wilson, NASA’s Production Operations Manager for the Orion Program, added. “That’s a subset of it, I guess the first part. The actual testing we’re in today is what we call ‘mission testing,’ so we actually run kind of ground simulations so the vehicle thinks it’s flying.”
“We’ll actually run it through the launch phase, through the ascent portion, and then we’ll do a re-entry portion of testing,” Wilson explained. “You’ll hear the term ‘test like you fly’ and so a lot of the mission testing is trying to do that.”
“It’s making sure that we’re not just testing a system in, for lack of a better word, a lab environment. We’re actually running it through the paces in the way that we would fly, it in the sequence we would fly, to make sure that it’s going to work the way we think it should.”
The two completed modules were mated in mid-July at the time of the Apollo 11 fiftieth anniversary. The Service Module was first moved to the FAST cell and set up there, followed by lifting of the Crew Module into the cell where the two could be physically joined.
(Photo Caption: The Artemis 1 Crew Module is lowered on top of the Service Module on July 16 during mating operations in the FAST cell of the O&C Building. The two modules are physically bolted together, along with an umbilical that runs between the Crew Module and the Crew Module Adapter.)
For the July 20th event, the spacecraft had to be configured to protect export-controlled areas. “Due to ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) restrictions we really can’t have media events or imagery in the public domain of I’ll say the ‘guts’ of the Crew Module and so we had temporarily installed some backshell panels so that we could host the event,” Schneider explained.
“One thing that you also saw at that event was there was some tiles on the backshell panels that we’re missing and that’s all by design. Those tiles are closeout tiles that don’t go on until after the backshell panels are installed for flight. Those will be going on here shortly in the next several weeks.”
A little bit more of the Crew Module was seen in the mated configuration during the event than will be visible when it is closed out. “The reason you saw the lip of the heatshield is because the outboard walls of the CMA (Crew Module Adapter) weren’t installed and that’s because we still had to get into those cavities to do work, but [the Crew Module] was in its place,” Schneider said.
“In fact we had already started the installation of the CM-SM R&R (Retention and Release) mechanism when the Vice President showed up.”
In addition to the physical bolted connections, the modules are connected through an umbilical with all the data, electrical, and fluid interfaces for them to work together throughout the flight. The modules will remain connected until the end of the mission, when pyrotechnic devices will break those connections allowing them to separate.
“There is lots of work to do that you can’t do until you mate, like install all the mechanisms and the pyrotechnics that are involved with the CM-SM separation joint or interface,” Schneider said. “All that is done. You have to install the umbilical that goes between the CM and the SM after they are mated, that’s quite a bit of work to install that umbilical, that’s all done.”
Hurricane Dorian downtime
It is Hurricane Season in the Atlantic Basin, and KSC closed for a week at the beginning of September during the passage of Hurrican Dorian.
“This one was kind of weird,” Wilson noted. “I think the weather guys called it being stalked by a turtle, because the thing kept coming at us but it kept slowing down.”
“The center itself ended up being shut down for a week and so once we started getting into where it looks like it’s going to hit the center and we shut down, we in Orion will do an orderly shutdown, protect the vehicle, and then of course when the center stood down, we’re not working through that time period. Then when we come back it takes us about a day to get back up and running or so, so that’s exactly what we did for this past one.”
(Photo Caption: The Artemis 1 Crew and Service Module (CSM) on July 19 in the FAST cell of the O&C Building. The backshell panels covered with black thermal protection system tiles were installed temporarily for the Apollo 11 anniversary event the next day. Now that spacecraft testing is complete ahead of shipment to Plum Brook Station, they are being prepped for flight installation over the next month and a half.)
At the time of the interview on September 13, KSC was in HurCon IV waiting to see what would happen with the tropical system that was subsequently named Humberto. Over the weekend, the storm was no longer forecast to be a danger to the space center and it was not closed.
The HurCon levels provide a framework for preparations days and hours ahead of a threatening storm and given time to deliberately suspend assembly and test operations, there are several things to consider.
“If you look at what we did with Dorian, you’ve got to look at what you’re doing and then decide is there a logical stop or break point that you don’t want to go past because it’s going to be too difficult to back out of in time to get out for the storm, so that’s what we were doing,” Schneider explained.
“We were in the middle of some functional testing on the Artemis 1 spacecraft and we were about ready to go charge the flight batteries up to one-hundred percent and the center was at HurCon II or III and the storm predictions were pretty dire, so we made the call to not proceed up to one-hundred percent charge and to start our preparations for the storm, so that’s the kind of logic at the vehicle level, the operational level, that we go through.”
“There’s a little bit of I’ll say just configuring the vehicle to walk away from it, because you can’t just say ‘OK, I’m going to leave everything just like it is’ and walk away,” Schneider added. “Like if you have tanks pressurized at certain pressures we might have to back those pressures down to a safer pressure.”
“Unless you’re really lucky and you’re between tests and you’re in that configuration, but typically because these things aren’t planned you’ve got to do a little work to get the vehicle configured properly,” he explained. “It’s not a bunch, but it’s a little bit and then you get everything to where you need it to be — pressures and charging levels and ground support equipment — configured properly and powered down.”
“You can’t have the ground systems that are attached to the vehicle powered,” Schneider also noted. “So you’ve got to back out of those things, power down the ground system, we cover everything to make sure that if there’s any kind of leaks in the facility it doesn’t damage the ground equipment or the spacecraft, and then you’re ready to walk away.”
Closing out the spacecraft for Plum Brook testing
Schneider and Wilson estimated there’s about four to six weeks worth of spacecraft closeouts to get it configured for the upcoming thermal vacuum testing. “When the vehicle goes to Plum Brook it is very much in a flight configuration,” Schneider said. “So for instance we will start putting back shell panels on for flight and doing all the associated closeouts that go with that, so all the thermal protection system closeouts that go with installing the backshell panels for flight.”
“The forward bay cover will get installed,” he added. “It won’t get flight installed because you can’t do that until after you install the LAS (Launch Abort System) but it goes on. It won’t come off again, it just doesn’t get totally pre-loaded for flight until the LAS is installed.”
“So you start closing out a lot of things, because when we go to Plum Brook we’re pretty much done.”
Photo Caption: The forward bay cover of the Orion Crew Module Structural Test Article (STA) is seen at the time of a pyro shock/separation test conducted in the Spring. The flight cover is also being closed out and installed on the Artemis 1 spacecraft for the upcoming thermal vacuum tests at Plum Brook Station.)
The spacecraft is scheduled go through several weeks of thermal vacuum and electromagnetic inference/compatibility (EMI/EMC) testing at Plum Brook’s Space Environments Complex beginning in the Fall. As the name implies, during thermal vacuum testing the spacecraft will be operated in a vacuum, with facility equipment also heating and cooling the spacecraft from outside.
“Because we’re going to be doing a thermal vac test you definitely want the thermal aspects of the spacecraft to be what it’s going to be on flight,” Schneider added.
With the Orion Crew and Service Module (CSM) post-mate checkouts complete, the backshell panels can now be flight installed on the vehicle. For the multi-week flight into and out of lunar orbit, the backshell panels are being covered with a silicone-oxide coated aluminum kapton tape, in a similar fashion to how its heatshield is taped.
(Photo Caption: The Artemis 1 Crew Module is lifted into the FAST cell for mating with the Service Module on July 16. The heatshield is already covered with silvery kapton tape, as the backshell panels will be for this second Orion test flight. The four structural attach points can also be seen extending from the heatshield. The attachments include pyrotechnic bolts to enable CM-SM separation at the end of the mission and compression pads developed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in collaboration with Bally Ribbon Mills and San Diego Composites.)
Artemis 1 is the first time Orion will fly for an extended period of time; the Exploration Flight Test-1 mission in 2014 was only about four hours long and only the heatshield was taped for that test flight.
“It’s being applied as we speak,” Schneider said. “We’re probably I’d say seventy to eighty percent complete with all the taping of the backshell.”
“We do most of that on the bench before the backshells go up and we have to do the closeouts. The areas we don’t do before they go up are the areas around the edge of the panel that would have a thermal barrier that has to be installed or some RTV (Room Temperature Vulcanizer) or something.”
Plum Brook transportation alternatives considered
Once the spacecraft is ready to ship to Plum Brook, it will be “packed” for transportation, first being put in a tool called a ‘verticator’ to break the spacecraft over from its vertical processing and test orientation to the horizontal orientation necessary to fit in the Super Guppy it was planned to fly in.
“So we have this verticator that you’ve heard of, it’s basically a tool, transport fixture, that we designed and had fabricated specifically to do this transport to Plum Brook and back,” Schneider said.
“We’re sitting in the FAST cell right now vertically, [but] you have to be horizontal to sit in the Guppy so we take the vehicle out of the FAST cell and we use this tool, this fixture that we’ve designed and had fabricated we’ve affectionately called it the verticator. You set down in there vertically and then you use it to rotate the vehicle down ninety degrees horizontally and then when you do that it’s sitting on part of the fixture that we call the flight frame.”
The spacecraft will be covered and hooked up to a ground cooling unit for the trip. “The flight frame is the part of the fixture that actually holds the vehicle and it gets loaded, the flight frame and the vehicle get loaded into the Guppy, that’s what flies,” Schneider explained.
(Photo Caption: The Orion Crew and Service Module Horizontal Transporter (CHT) during tests with NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft in March at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF). The yellow truss structure mimics the weight and center of gravity of the spacecraft along with an approximation of its outer moldline. An air conditioning unit also sits in the foreground on the flight frame. The transporter will carry the spacecraft in its transportation equipment from the O&C Building to the SLF.)
“Before we do that though we have a soft cover that we had designed and built, so we cover the vehicle with this soft cover. It doesn’t actually touch the vehicle, it just encapsulates it, if you will. And then we have a big air-conditioning unit, we call it just the conditioning unit that mounts onto the flight frame that actually keeps the volume under the soft cover that spacecraft is sitting in conditioned during the transport.
“So all that gets installed before we leave the O&C, we load the flight frame with the vehicle in it onto what’s called a tonner which is provided by the Air Force, that’s the device that actually will take the spacecraft and the fixture out to the Shuttle Landing Facility where the Guppy will be waiting,” he added. “The tonner is the device that actually raises the spacecraft up to right height and interfaces to the Guppy.”
“The flight frame with the vehicle will be rolled into the Guppy, it’ll be tied down, secured to the Guppy, they’ll close the door, and then that starts the journey to Plum Brook. Then when we get to Plum Brook you basically do everything in reverse to get the vehicle back into a vertical configuration which is how all the testing in Plum Brook will happen.”
“So you do that and then when you’re done with all the testing, you do the whole process in reverse to get us back to the O&C,” he said.
“I think end of October, beginning of November is the time-frame we’re targeting,” Wilson said regarding the current forecast for the spacecraft to be ready for transport. “We haven’t picked an exact date yet, but I’d say late October, early November is the right time-frame.”
Although the spacecraft would be ready to go, an issue with using the Super Guppy for the flight was recently noted. During a U.S. House of Representatives oversight hearing on September 18 by the Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, it was said there may be an issue with total transportation weight being higher than the Super Guppy’s emergency landing limit.
The ranking member of the subcommittee, Representative Brian Babin of Texas, questioned Ken Bowersox, Acting Associate Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), about the concern.
“Recently we heard of potential issues with the delivery of the Orion spacecraft to Plum Brook for testing,” Babin noted. “Apparently the margins for the Super Guppy, the airplane that is planned to transport the spacecraft, could be insufficient to handle a potential emergency landing based on the weight of Orion and the container that it is shipped in.”
Representative Babin asked about using NASA’s Pegasus barge as an alternative and if weather in the Fall could create delays and scheduling conflicts if Pegasus were to be used.
“The bottom line is we’re very hopeful that the Guppy is going to work out,” Mr. Bowersox said. “Our most likely backup options would be other aircraft options, for example the Beluga aircraft that they have over in Europe right now. It would require some extra time, but we still think we would be ready for the launch of Artemis 1 that we’re forecasting.”
Wilson said in an email today that an ocean and river transport with Pegasus was ruled out. “The NASA Pegasus barge was studied and determined that it was not a feasible option for several reasons including loads, schedule, and the risks of winter travel in the North Atlantic and the St. Lawrence [River],” he said. “The alternative to the Guppy is Airbus’ Beluga which is a version of the standard A300-600 wide-body airliner modified to carry aircraft parts and oversized cargo.”
He noted the spacecraft would still ship in the existing handling equipment. “There will be no significant change to the configuration whether it goes on NASA’s Super Guppy or Airbus’ Beluga. The CSM would still be mounted in the CSM Horizontal Transport (CHT) Fixture. There would be minor differences in the way the fixture is mounted to the aircraft floor due to differences between the aircraft.”
Wilson also said NASA is currently conducting tests with the Super Guppy to try to certify the aircraft and CHT fixture for the round trip with Orion from KSC to Mansfield Lahm Regional Airport in Ohio and back after testing at Plum Brook. “We have a set of planned tests that are designed to characterize the loads in the aircraft, CSM, and fixture. The plan involves a series of tests that work up to the flight of the CSM to PBS (Plum Brook Station).”
“We have completed static and taxi tests of the aircraft at KSC, with and without the CSM/CHT simulator,” Wilson explained. “The team is in the process of conducting flight testing with a weighted pallet to gather additional data. This data will be reviewed and analyzed by structures and dynamics engineers over the next several weeks and the results used to provide certification for flight.”
The Super Guppy flight test data may also lead to some additional reinforcements to the spacecraft handling equipment. “Depending on the results of the ongoing flight testing there may be minor modifications to the CHT fixture to strengthen the structure in some locations,” Wilson said.
Lockheed Martin test team travels with Orion
The facilities at Plum Brook are ready for testing. “On the NASA side we’ve got a team of folks that support my office out of Glenn Research Center that have worked to ensure that the facility is ready to go and so we just had our facility readiness review up there about a week and a half ago I think it was, maybe two weeks now,” Wilson said. “So the facility itself is now ready to go, that’s a NASA team that runs the facility and essentially provides the environment, the vacuum and environment there.”
(Photo Caption: The heat flux system that will surround the Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft is seen in the thermal vacuum chamber at Plum Brook inside the open cryo shroud. The cryo shroud and heat flux system provide the thermal conditioning during the tests with the whole chamber at vacuum.)
Schneider said that Lockheed Martin will relocate a few dozen of its KSC-based test team members to Plum Brook to operate the spacecraft during the tests, while NASA’s Plum Brook team manages the facility equipment. “If you think about it you don’t want people who have never done that before doing that, you want the people who have been testing the vehicle throughout its life cycle in the O&C to be the ones testing it up in Ohio,” he explained.
The spacecraft will be missing its Solar Array Wings (SAW) for this in-space testing, which is one of the functions that the KSC electrical ground support equipment (EGSE) provides. “What our team does is we actually bring all the ground support equipment up to Plum Brook that we need to power up the spacecraft and run through all the different simulations and functional testing,” Schneider said.
“All that ground support equipment will come from the O&C, the vast majority of it. Once the vehicle is there, we’ll hook up all the ground support equipment, power up the spacecraft, all of that stuff and all the procedures that we run through on the spacecraft side, that’s all done by the Lockheed Martin team from the O&C building.”
“It’ll vary during the three months of testing, but it’ll probably be between twenty and thirty people from the O&C team that’ll be up there,” he added. “It might get a little higher than that at the front end and on the back end when we’re getting set up, but during the testing phases it’ll probably be between twenty and thirty people from the O&C that’ll go up there and run the vehicle through the tests.”