Spaceflight Insider

Insider Interview: Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Human Space Program Director talks Orion

Orion Kennedy Space Center Exploration Flight Test 1 EFT-1 Launch Abort System LAS ATK Aerojet Rocketdyne photo credit Mike Howard SpaceFlight Insider

Aerojet Rocketdyne provided the jettison motor which pulled the Launch Abort System away from the Orion spacecraft during the Dec. 5 test flight of the spacecraft. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla — It took a number of organizations working as one to get NASA’s Orion spacecraft off of the ground and into the skies on December 5, 2014. While Lockheed Martin was the prime contractor on the spacecraft, United Launch Alliance (ULA ) provided the Delta IV Heavy booster, ATK produced the Launch Abort System – and Aerojet Rocketdyne developed and built the jettison motor in the LAS – as well as directional thrusters that the spacecraft used during its four and-a-half hour mission.

SpaceFlight Insider spoke with Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Program Director Human Space – Sam Wiley about what his company had done to make the recently flown (Dec. 5) Exploration Flight Test 1 mission a success.  Wiley focused in on two key aspects that helped ensure that EFT-1 was successfully carried out.

SpaceFlight Insider: Mr. Wiley, thanks for joining us on this busy day. 

NASA Orion Launch Abort System model test. Photo Credit NASA Eric James

Exploration Flight Test 1 was conducted as a shake down cruise of NASA’s new crew-rated spacecraft – Orion. Photo Credit: Eric James / NASA

Wiley: “My pleasure, yes, it’s a bit busy – but in a good way.”

SpaceFlight Insider: I imagine so! So, tell our readers a bit about what you are working on these days.

Wiley: “Orion. The major program that I am working on right now – is Orion. In terms of EFT-1 one of our focuses was on the jettison motor on the Launch Abort System as well as the Crew Module RCS engines. There are 12 160-lb thrust engines that we provide. So, that’s what I do.”

SpaceFlight Insider: Can you talk about the LAS a bit? Aerojet Rocketdyne’s jettison motor – was the only active component of that system – is that correct?

Wiley: “That’s correct, you probably know that the Launch Abort System has three motors, it has the big abort motor and then stacked on top of that is the jettison motor and then stacked on top of that is the attitude control motor. The abort and attitude control motor are used if they would need to do an abort.

The jettison motor is used to pull the Launch Abort System off of the tower and that will be done on every flight. But, yes that was the only live motor on this launch

SpaceFlight Insider: You mentioned the RCS motors that were on the LAS, we have all heard a lot about that – but we really have not heard all that much about the RCS motors – can you talk a bit more about that?

Wiley: “Sure, sure, there are actually about 12 rocket engines that are about 160 lbs a piece, these are mono-propellant engines and they are arranged in pods, we actually package the engines in what is called and it has got structure and thermal protection and electrical harnessing.

Basically we fire up the crew module attitude control system, we fired up those engines on the EFT-1 mission right after we separated from the second stage (Orion used the Delta IV Heavy’s that sent it to orbit upper stage to carry out the mission’s two orbits) and those are basically used to get the crew module in the proper orientation prior to reentry.

The RCS system then controls the crew module through reentry and then we actually fired those engines all the way down until splashdown – we actually used the roll thrusters on the crew module to kind of steer the vehicle when it was hanging under the chutes. So, basically, that system is used through reentry – all the way until splashdown.”

Orion Launch Abort System infographic information sheet NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA infographic that highlights the various components used on the Launch Abort System. Image Credit: NASA

SpaceFlight Insider: Was that similar as to what we can expect to see on future flights of Orion, or given the unique nature of EFT-1, was it different?

Wiley: “They will be ding the exact same thing in the future as EFT-1 – the only difference between what we flew last week and what we’ll fly in the future is that we will increase the capability of the engines to withstand the higher reentry heat load. On EFT-1, Orion came in at about 80 percent of the lunar reentry speed. So we will be beefing up the engine from a thermal perspective for use on future flights. But, other than some tweaks to the engine, other than that, we pretty much will be flying the same thing for all future missions.”

SpaceFlight Insider: When you were watching the launch last week, when you were waiting for the LAS to fire or the RCS system to direct Orion – what were you feeling? More importantly, what was the mood like where you were?

United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 37 SLC-37 Exploration Flight Test 1 EFT-1 photo credit Mike Howard SpaceFlight Insider

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, with its payload of NASA’s Orion spacecraft – lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 at 7:05 a.m. EST. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

Wiley: “There was a little disappointment that we didn’t get to launch on December 4, but, I was standing out at the (NASA) Causeway waiting for the launch and I had incredible nerves and jitters that was difficult for me to calm as when we were going through the terminal count – I was bounding up and down…I had goose bumps all over, knots in my stomach you know – and then I saw the initial light of those RS-68 engines, and that thick, orange flame as it first starts and, at that time, I started to worry as it just didn’t seem to be clearing the tower, it just seemed so slow.

Then it slowly lifted off and climbed out and that wall of sound hits you and vibrates your whole body and I mean…it’s just difficult to describe it in words for somebody there who is experiencing it. At that point, everybody starts walking back and I am going, ‘No, No, No – don’t go back yet!’ – I want to hear when the mission goes through the Launch Abort System segment of the flight.

I was sitting at the top of this little knoll and we hear that the boosters had separated, and then we got ‘MECO’ Main Engine Shutdown, the core (central Common Booster Core) drops off, Second Stage ignition and then fairing sep and then right after that we all go: ‘One!’ because when the jettison motor fires it has got…for about a second and a half – that’s all the time it requires to pull the tower off. Once they had said successful LAS jettison it is like ‘okay, great!’ – let’s move as fast as we can to watch the rest of the mission (laughs).

We got back on the bus and I immediately got my laptop out with my air card, pull it up and I’m watching the NASA feed. I went back to the hotel and grab a few things before heading back to where I know that they are watching the rest of the mission and I was with Kristin over at the Hilton watching the feed and we saw the separation from the second stage and we go, ‘Good, good, good’ and there were a couple of my colleagues from Lockheed there that were getting text messages from the guys at Mission Control monitoring the propulsion system and we had the propulsion systems up, the thrusters are checked out and firing, and here’s the ones that we have fired and then we were basically watching a timeline and we watched as several burns were successful and we had reentry interface, the engines are working great.

We were looking at the propellant usage and the pulse counts and the firing times on the engines – and it was just amazing that it worked…I don’t know that I have ever seen anything work as perfectly across the board as it all did. We kept waiting for, ‘where’s the anomaly? where’s the panic? – at the same time where we are having that feeling I am bouncing up and down, I have goose bumps all over me. I know that has to sound kind of corny but that is the way that it was for me. Just a huge, huge relief after we splashed down.”

Crew module after splash down in the Pacific Ocean with the Crew Module Uprighting System bags deployed and the USS Anchorage in the background

After two orbits and a mission lasting some four-and-a-half hours – Orion safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean – just off the California Coast. Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / NASA

SpaceFlight Insider: Our readers might not be aware of the fact that Aerojet Rocketdyne provided numerous elements that made EFT-1 a reality – can you go over a few of them?

Wiley: “You need look no further than the Delta IV launch vehicle itself – the three RS-68 engines that are on each of the Common Booster Cores (the Delta IV Heavy employs three). Those are built down in…down in L.A. (Los Angeles) and they are tested at Stennis (Space Center). In terms of the second stage, there is the RL10B (rocket engine), that is built down in our Palm Beach facility and also on the second stage is a series of twelve, small, attitude control engines that are used to control the second stage, you know propellant and attitude control. Then across both the first and second stage our ARDE facility in New Jersey provides a whole series of helium tanks that we use for that.

Then as we transition up into Orion you got the crew module engines, those are made in our Redmond facility and we test them in our Sacramento facility. Then on the Launch Abort System we have the jettison motor which was designed in our Gainesville facility and was fabricated and assembled back in Sacramento.

Also, there is an up-righting system, those large ‘beach balls’ that inflate to flip the capsule back up if it flips over – the helium pressure tanks for that are also provided by our ARDE facility. So, from liftoff until splashdown – we have elements in every stage from beginning to end.”

NASA is working to restart crewed deep space exploration efforts after more than four decades of inactivity. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA is working to restart crewed deep space exploration efforts after more than four decades of inactivity. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

SpaceFlight Insider: What do you think Aeroejet Rocketdyne will be working on in the future, what will be EFT-1’s impact on the future of human spaceflight?

Wiley: “I think it’s a great stepping stone if you think that it has been a while since the United States has put people up in space. Now? Not are we only putting people back into space – but we are pushing beyond low-Earth orbit. These are the first steps toward getting us to Mars and I think the fact that this was so successful – this really points to not only the dedication of the contractor community but the NASA community and everybody that is involved with this. I think that this is going to capture a lot of people’s interest that, you know, we do have the capability and we do have the know how and the passion…Let’s build on this, let’s keep going let’s take those next steps…”

SpaceFlight Insider: I see that our time is about up, thanks for chatting with us Sam.

Wiley: “No problem, it was my pleasure!”

The next planned mission for Orion is Exploration Mission 1 or “EM-1” – which, if everything goes according to plan, will be the first test flight of NASA’s new heavy-lift booster, the Space Launch System or “SLS.” EM-1 should also see the second uncrewed test flight of Orion, which, unlike the Orion used on EFT-1 will have a functioning Service Module (provided by the European Space Agency through Airbus Defence and Space). The launch site for the mission is Launch Complex 39B located at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

At present, EM-1 is set to take place in November of 2018, will last about a week and should see the crew-rated spacecraft conduct a circumlunar trajectory – the first spacecraft of this type to conduct such a mission since 1972. If that is successful – a new era in human deep space exploration missions could be just around the corner.

The flight that would follow EM-1, EM-2, would use the Block IB version of SLS, it would use an improved upper stage, a Block 1 version of Orion – and could last for up to two weeks. Although specifics are not currently available, a crew of anywhere between four to six astronauts would enter lunar orbit, where a captured asteroid, possibly 2000 SG344, would await their arrival. The crew would examine and take samples from the asteroid and then return home. At present, the mission is planned for 2021 and will also be flown to test Orion with an actual crew on board.

Video courtesy of Astro95 Media


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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


Great article. Does it look like EM2 and the ARM may become separate missions — EM2 is planned for 2021. ARM is now being said for 2024/2025 at the earliest.

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