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Cage match for next Orion capsule at Kennedy Space Center

The Orion EM-1 spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center's Operations and Checkout building. Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / We Report Space

The Orion EM-1 spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center’s Operations and Checkout building. Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / We Report Space

After a quick trip from Louisiana to Florida via the Super Guppy transport, the latest Orion crew module was mated with the “birdcage”—a structural assembly system. This is just the latest step in the lead up to the fully integrated flight of Orion and NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) booster—slated for late 2018.

The birdcage will be used to change Orion’s orientation as it transforms from merely a pressure vessel to a finished spacecraft. This transformation will see avionics systems, propulsion modules, parachutes as well as life support systems added. Together these elements will become the living quarters for astronauts on deep space missions.

The Orion pressure vessel will now have its other components incorporated onto it. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

The Orion pressure vessel will now have its other components incorporated onto it. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

This production unit is lighter than its predecessors, shedding a lot of weight as the design progressed from test articles that were used for Exploration Flight Test (EFT) 1, which launched on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket in December 2014.

Lessons learned on EFT-1 are now being implemented on the spacecraft’s design for the Exploration Mission 1—slated to take to the skies on the SLS.

“The structure shown here is 500 pounds [227 kilograms] lighter than its Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) counterpart,” Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion vice president and program manager, said in a press release.

Hawes said once all the final structural components, such as longerons, bolts, and brackets are added, the total crew module structural weight savings from EFT-1 to EM-1 will be approximately 700 pounds (318 kilograms).

“Our very talented team in Louisiana has manufactured a great product and now they have passed the baton to Florida. This is where we assemble, test and launch, and the fun really begins,” Hawes said.

The EM-1 Orion arrived at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on Feb. 1, 2016. Photo Credit: Laurel Ann Whitlock / SpaceFlight Insider

The EM-1 Orion arrived at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on Feb. 1, 2016. Photo Credit: Laurel Ann Whitlock / SpaceFlight Insider

Now that the capsule has been placed in the service structure, it will undergo a series of tests to verify everything is at operational levels before the other components can be added. These tests include structural weld tests, pressure testing, as well as laser and X-ray scanning to verify hull integrity. Engineers will also be checking the welds on the fluid systems.

Only after the capsule has passed all of these tests will it undergo final assembly and checkout.

As noted, this capsule is slated to be a part of EM 1—the first full-up test of the Space Launch System (SLS)—which should be sent aloft in December of 2018. The mission calls for the Orion capsule to be launched into a lunar retrograde orbit. This wide orbit around the Moon will put the capsule farther from Earth than any other human-rated vehicle.

The Orion capsule’s design is similar to the Apollo capsule—only much larger. Orion is more than 16 feet (5 meters) across and nearly 10 feet (3.3 meters) in length. Its landing-weight mass is 20,500 lbs (9.3 metric tons). This gives the Orion 50 percent more capacity than the Apollo capsule. The craft will be equipped with state-of-the-art systems including an autodocking system, a ‘glass cockpit’, and improved waste management facilities. The craft will also use a nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere with a low-pressure point of 10.2 psi, similar to flying in a commercial jet. The Orion spacecraft is planned to be the crew capsule of choice for long-duration missions beyond Earth orbit.

Orion will fly on the Space Launch System (SLS). NASA recently described the science missions that will be aboard the SLS along with the Orion capsule. These experiments include an innovative method for releasing CubeSats—small-sized satellites that pack a lot of science into a very tiny (as small as 4-inch square) package.

EM-1 is scheduled to last three weeks and will work to certify the design and safety of the spacecraft as well as SLS.

“The arrival of Orion is very exciting for us,” said Scott Wilson, NASA Orion production manager. “This is the first mission where the Orion spacecraft will be integrated with the large Space Launch System rocket. Orion is the vehicle that’s going to take astronauts to deep space.”

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Photo Credit: Laurel Ann Whitlock / SpaceFlight Insider

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Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.

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