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NASA conducts ninth Orion drop test at Langley

Sequential shots of August 25, 2016, drop test of NASA's Orion spacecraft at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

The Aug. 25, 2016, drop test was the ninth for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

HAMPTON, Va. — NASA conducted the ninth drop test of the space agency’s Orion spacecraft at Langley Research Center on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. The test began at 3:30 p.m. EDT (07:30 GMT) with the mockup of the spacecraft being dropped into about 20 feet of water at the Center’s Landing and Impact Research Facility.

More specifically, the tests have been carried out at the Hydro Impact Basin. It is hoped that these tests will provide engineers with a clear understanding of how Orion will behave during an actual ocean landing.

August 25, 2016 drop test of NASA's Orion spacecraft at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

The Orion mockup was held aloft on a gantry that began serving NASA during the Apollo Program of the 1960s and 1970s. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

The gantry that held Orion measures some 240 feet (73 meters) in height and 400 feet (122 meters) in length and 206 feet (63 meters) in width. The steel A-Frame structure was constructed in 1963 and was in service two years later in 1965,

While 20 feet (6 meters) is a far cry from the fathoms upon fathoms that the world’s oceans contain, these tests do provide information about how the spacecraft should react upon impact. How the parachutes might behave under varying wind conditions and wave heights are factors that engineers are looking into.

Attending the test was Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Exploration Systems Development; Dave Bowles, Langley’s director; Lara Kearney, NASA’s manager of the Orion Crew and Service Module, as well as Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin’s Orion program manager (Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on the Orion spacecraft).

The capsule, which included the heat shield from the first flight of Orion, the December 2014 Exploration Flight Test 1, splashed down – but not alone.

Within the capsule were two “anthropomorphic” test dummies, one designed to simulate a roughly 105-pound (48 kg) female and a 225-pound (102 kg) male crew members (similar tests were done recently carried out with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft). The faux astronauts were dressed in spacesuits and equipped with sensors which should tell engineers what actual crews might experience during an actual ocean landing.

Gaining data on this is becoming all the more critical as the space agency is currently working to launch the second test flight of Orion – and the maiden flight of NASA’s Space Launch System – on Exploration Mission 1. EM-1 is currently slated to launch in late 2018.

During this mission, Orion will venture an estimated 40,000 miles (64,374 km) beyond the Moon. This means that when the uncrewed Orion spacecraft returns to Earth, it will do so at speeds reaching an estimated 25,000 mph (40,000 km/h).

“This has been some three years in the making […] not just the tests themselves, but what’s inside,” said Mark Baldwin, a crew safety analyst with Lockheed Martin. “It [the Orion mockup] may just look like the exterior structure, but inside it is packed with sensors. We do have two seats, two suited dummies, to measure the impact loads on a crew during an impact like this.”

August 25, 2016, drop test of NASA's Orion spacecraft at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

Splashdown! Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

Video Courtesy of NASA Langley Research Center

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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, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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