Spaceflight Insider

Orion prepared for next mission

Engineer at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility.

Lockheed Martin Engineers at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana, perform the first weld on the Orion pressure vessel for Exploration Mission 1. This is the third pressure Orion pressure vessel built. Engineers continue to refine the design reducing the number of welds from 33 on the first pressure vessel to 7 on the current one, saving 700 pounds of mass.
Photo & Caption Credit: NASA / Radislav Sinyak

The first components of the new Orion capsule have been welded together at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) located in New Orleans, Louisiana. Engineers at the facility have started the construction of the second Orion capsule – the first to be placed atop the planned first flight of the SLS – capable of transporting humans to the Moon since the launch of Apollo 17 in 1972.

Preparing the parts for welding is a delicate process with a specific set of cleaning and inspection routines that must be meticulously followed. The primary structure of the Orion capsule consists of seven large aluminum components, each milled to tight specifications. Before welding can begin, a series of strain gauges and wiring are attached to each of the segments to measure stresses during the assembly process.

This diagram shows the seven pieces of Orion’s primary structure and the order in which they are welded together. Image & Caption Credits: NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

This diagram shows the seven pieces of Orion’s primary structure and the order in which they are welded together. Image & Caption Credit: NASA

The first weld connects the tunnel to Orion’s forward bulkhead. This area of the craft houses many critical components including the parachutes used for recovering the capsule. The tunnel is the primary passageway when Orion is connected to other spacecraft. It allows astronauts and cargo to be passed from one vehicle to the other.

“Each of Orion’s systems and subsystems is assembled or integrated onto the primary structure, so starting to weld the underlying elements together is a critical first manufacturing step,” said Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager. “The team has done tremendous work to get to this point and to ensure we have a sound building block for the rest of Orion’s systems.”

The Michoud facility, part of the Marshall Spaceflight Group, is best known for the construction of the External Fuel tanks for the Space Shuttle. The facility was also the manufacturing base for the Saturn V first stage and components of the cancelled Constellation Program’s Ares I and V rockets.

The most recent Orion milestone was a parachute test with a full-size engineering model at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. That test verified the Orion capsule is capable of a survivable landing in the event of a partial parachute failure. The craft normally returns on 5 parachutes (2 drogues and 3 main chutes). The test involved the loss of 1 drogue and 1 main parachute.While some parts will vary on an engineering model, the size and mass of the original article remain to get accurate measurements without jeopardizing an expensive prototype.

Orion underwent a complete test flight in December 2014. In that test, the Orion was lofted into space on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket. The trajectory sent the capsule into a highly elliptical orbit around the Earth. Apogee for Orion exceeded 3,600 miles (5,794 km) before the capsule was sent plunging back to Earth. This was to simulate the re-entry forces from beyond Earth orbit. The capsule was launched from Cape Canaveral, Flordia, and safely landed 4.5 hours later in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles off the coast of San Diego.

Parts will continue to arrive at Michoud for inspection and assembly. When the structure for Orion is complete, it will be shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for final assembly and checkout before being mated with the Space Launch System (SLS) before launch.

“Every day, teams around the country are moving at full speed to get ready for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), when we’ll flight test Orion and SLS together in the proving ground of space, far away from the safety of Earth,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development. “We’re progressing toward eventually sending astronauts deep into space.”


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.

Reader Comments

My wife Karen and I had the pleasure of touring the Michoud Assembly Facility on 14 August 2015. It’s an amazing place. Go SLS!

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