Spaceflight Insider

Road to EM-1: Orion one step closer to next flight

Final core weld for EM 1 Orion spacecraft NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: NASA

NASA and Lockheed Martin have completed another important step toward having the space agency’s new crew-rated Orion spacecraft venture out in the vicinity of the Moon. On Jan. 13 of this year (2016), engineers at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans finished welding work on the capsule-shaped craft’s primary structure. 

Space Launch System SLS Orbital ATK five segment solid rocket booster NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA hopes to conduct the first test flight of SLS in the final quarter of 2018. Image Credit: NASA

The pressure vessel portion of one of NASA’s next crewed vehicle is comprised of some seven core components. Each of these sections had to be welded together before Orion could be prepared for the next phase of its development. With that now complete, the craft will be shipped to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The welding of these components began in Sept. 2015; the process involved in assembling Orion is more complicated than just fusing several pieces of metal together, however. Each component had wiring, gauges, and other elements affixed to them so as to study how the metal behaved during the process.

While one might envision workers covered in soot connecting the seven pieces together, the procedure mirrored the high-tech product it would produce. Using what is known as friction-stir welding, the process creates strong bonds by converting the hard surfaces into a state, described by NASA, as being “plastic-like state”.

From there a rotating pin tool is used to soften, stir, and then “weld” two metal components into one. Unlike the wavy patterns of more-traditional welds, those produced by friction-stir welding are more uniform and smooth. Given the flights Orion might be tapped to carry out, this process is viewed as a pivotal element of new crewed missions into deep space.

“We’ve started off the year with a key step in our process to get ready for Exploration Mission-1, when together Orion and SLS will travel farther than a spacecraft built for humans has ever traveled,” said Mike Sarafin, Exploration Mission-1 manager. “This brings us closer to our goal of testing our deep space exploration systems in the proving ground of lunar space before we begin sending astronauts days to weeks from Earth.”

NASA Super Guppy aircraft Nathan Moeller Astro95 Media photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Orion will be transported to Kennedy Space Center by NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft. Photo Credit: Nathan Moeller / SpaceFlight Insider

Exploration Mission 1 or “EM-1” is a planned circumlunar flight for the spacecraft. It should also be the first time that Orion flies as part of NASA’s new super-heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System or “SLS”. At present, that mission is slated to take place in late 2018.

“The team at Michoud has worked incredibly hard produce a lightweight, yet incredibly durable Orion structure ready for its mission thousands of miles beyond the Moon,” said Mark Kirasich, Orion program manager. “The work to get us to this point has been essential. Orion’s pressure vessel is the foundation on which all of the spacecraft’s systems and subsystems are going to be built and integrated.”

When used on crewed flights, the pressure vessel will maintain a sealed environment and is the primary element of the spacecraft that shields astronauts from the harsh space environment.

With welding now complete on the pressure vessel, it will be transported to KSC via the iconic Super Guppy aircraft. Once it arrives, it will undergo a battery of to tests to ensure it is ready to be assembled with other Orion’s other components.

EM-1 will mark the first flight of the SLS and the second flight of the Orion spacecraft. If everything goes according to plan, it will travel out to a retrograde orbit around the Moon. NASA has stated it will use the area around the Moon as a proving ground to test out Orion before missions deeper out into space are attempted.


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

NASA seems to be testing engineering and production ideals rather than exploring space. So long as private companies have access to new ideals developed by taxpayer dollars this is way cool. BUT, it looks to me that private companies are going to lead us back into space.

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