Spaceflight Insider

Orion, SLS components undergo tests at Utah, Marshall Space Flight Center

Exploration Flight Test 1 EFT-1 Orion Kennedy Ames Space Center Marshall Flight heat shield ablative Avcoat photo credit Michael Seeley SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: Michael Seeley / SpaceFlight Insider

MARSHALL SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, Ala — Three months after successfully completing the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) mission, NASA’s first flown Orion spacecraft heat shield is now at the space agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) located in Huntsville, Alabama. The protective component will now be inspected with sections of the heat shield being extracted. This recent effort follows the successful test-firing of a five-segment solid rocket booster which is planned for use on NASA’s new super heavy-lift booster, the Space Launch System or “SLS.”

Orion’s inspection will be a joint affair conducted between engineers at MSFC and Ames Research Center, located in California. These technicians will take sections of the ablative material, known as Avcoat, which constitutes a portion of the heat shield, and will review what impact reentering the Earth’s atmosphere had on the material.

These engineers will now review the amount of erosion and how much of the shielding burned away during the December 5, 2014, maiden flight to gain a better understanding of the particulars of how the heat shield performed during its four hour mission.

Orion crewed spacecraft plunging through earth's atmosphere protected by its Avcoat heat shield NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Orion’s heat shield is perhaps one of the most critical elements of the spacecraft as it is the component which will shield the crew after returning from their missions. Image Credit: NASA

After that analysis has been made, engineers will determine whether modifications will need to be implemented or not. NASA uses test flights such as EFT-1 to shake out test articles of actual craft before moving on to crewed flights.

MSFC has the equipment and fixtures that are custom made to handle the 13 foot (4 meter) diameter shield.

Marshall has got the prerequisite experience needed to carry out such tests. In the heady days when NASA sent crews to the Moon, Wernher von Braun conducted much of his work from the location. Today, it is where SLS is managed from.


Two days before Orion’s heat shield arrived at Marshall, NASA tested out the five-segment Qualification Motor 1 booster. The SRB is planned for use on Orion’s launch vehicle of choice – SLS. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

Just two days prior to the spacecraft’s arrival, NASA and Orbital ATK conducted the Qualification Motor 1 test at the company’s Promontory, Utah, facility. This test saw one of the boosters (SLS will use two) that will be mounted on either side of the massive rocket.

These events are taking place during a time of increased activity for NASA’s efforts to return to the business of space exploration. A fact that appears to have the endorsement of some politicians. Senator Ted Cruz, who serves as the chairman of the committee which oversees NASA, suggested during a March 12 hearing on the President’s 2016 Budget Request for the space agency:

“Since the end of the last administration, we have seen a disproportionate increase in the amount of federal funds that have been allocated to the Earth Sciences Program at the expense of, and in comparison to, the Exploration and Space Operations, Planetary Science, Heliophysics and Astrophysics…,” Cruz stated in his opening remarks. “As I observed at our last hearing, the first priority for the space component of this subcommittee is to work to refocus NASA’s energies on its core priority of exploring space.”


Orion carried out its first test flight on Dec. 5, 2014, atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. Photo Credit: Sean Costello / SpaceFlight Insider

For their part, those working on NASA’s new booster – are working toward seeing the huge rocket conduct its first test flight by the end of 2018.

“We got a lot going on in the Space Launch System Program right now,” said NASA’s SLS Program Manager Todd May. “There are, literally, projects all over the country that are happening simultaneously. We actually have over 600 contracts in 42 states.”

If everything goes according to plan, an Orion spacecraft will be perched atop an SLS booster for the Exploration Mission 1 in November of 2018. This will be the first flight of the SLS – and the second for Orion. The spacecraft will conduct a circumlunar flight around the Moon. Upon completion of the mission, the spacecraft will splash down in the Pacific Ocean.

“We really pushed Orion as much as we could to give us real data that we can use to improve Orion’s design going forward,” said Mark Geyer NASA’s Orion Program manager after Orion’s Dec. 5, 2014, Exploration Flight Test 1 mission. “In the coming weeks and months we’ll be taking a look at that invaluable information and applying lessons learned to the next Orion spacecraft already in production for the first mission atop the Space Launch System rocket.”

Video courtesy of NASA


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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

My wife Karen and I were fortunate enough to watch the launch of EFT-1 from the NASA Causeway, and last week we were in Utah for the QM-1 test. Great days for NASA, and outstanding work by NASA, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Orbital ATK, Aerojet Rocketdyne, ULA and all the rest of the contractors and subcontractors!

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