Spaceflight Insider

Heat shield added to Orion’s crew capsule in preparation for test flight

The world's largest heat shield, designed to protect crews from the scorching temperatures of reentry, has been successfully attached Orion's crew capsule. Photo Credit: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla — Crews at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) have achieved an important milestone by successfully attaching the world’s largest heat shied to the Orion Crew Capsule. Spanning 16.5 feet in diameter, the heat shield is composed of a single, seamless piece of Avcoat ablator designed to protect crews from temperatures up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit and is slated to be flight tested later this year as part of its mission Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1).

One of the mission’s primary objectives is to test the efficiency of the heat shield in protecting the capsule and any potential crew against the scorching temperatures of reentry. Orion is part of NASA’s next generation manned spacecraft designed to replace the retired space shuttle program. This new vehicle will be responsible for carrying astronauts to places like the Moon, Mars and even an asteroid.

Crews at KSC's Operations and Checkout facility work around the clock to prepare Orion for its first mission, EFT-1. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

Crews at KSC’s Operations and Checkout facility work around the clock to prepare Orion for its first mission, EFT-1. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

Currently Orion’s EFT-1 mission is scheduled to launch December 2014 atop America’s most powerful rocket – United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy. At this time, the Delta IV Heavy is the only rocket capable of propelling Orion’s capsule and upper stage to an orbit of 3,600 miles above the Earth – that is farther than any human has traveled since the Apollo days and is an amazing fifteen times higher than the International Space Station’s (ISS) orbit.

During its initial test flight, Orion will orbit the Earth two times over a four hour period before reentering our atmosphere at speeds up to 20,000 miles per hour (32,000 km per hour) and finally splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. Speeds this high (about 80 percent of the Apollo capsule’s reentry speed) are necessary to properly test the capsule’s thermal protection system, especially the heat shield. Special sensors in the vehicle will be collecting temperature, pressure and stress data during the reentry process.

All data collected during the EFT-1 mission will help engineers determine if design decisions and computer models will need any adjustments as the program progresses towards its first flight aboard NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) booster as part of the EM-1 mission in late 2017.

The heat shield for NASA's next crewed spacecraft, Orion, was off-loaded from the super-guppy aircraft today, Dec. 5 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / The SpaceFlight Group

The heat shield for NASA’s Orion, being off-loaded from NASA’s Super-Guppy aircraft  at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

The EFT-1 launch was recently postponed from September 2014 to December 2014 to allow for an accelerated launch of the declassified US Air Force Space Surveillance satellites. Despite this postponement, technicians and engineers have been putting in long hours to ensure that Orion’s EFT-1 mission will be ready for launch by the original September launch date. Currently it is still on the schedule for December.

Orion’s heat shield arrived at Kennedy Space Center via NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft in December 2013 and was one of the final components needed to construct the capsule’s exterior structure. Shield production originated at Lockheed Martin’s Waterton Facility, where its titanium composite frame and carbon fiber skin were manufactured, providing the basis for its shape and support.

The shield was then shipped to Textron Defense Systems Boston facility. Here, it received its outer Avcoat ablater material as well as a fiberglass phenolic honeycomb structure attached to the carbon fiber skin. The 320,000 cells making up the honeycomb structure were then filled with Avcoat ablater material before being shipped to its final destination – Kennedy Space Center.


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