Orion pathfinder coming together in preparation for EM-1
Another visible sign the next Orion spacecraft is getting closer to launch on NASA’s new super heavy-lift booster, the Space Launch System – or “SLS” – is taking shape at the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans. A “pathfinder” version of Orion is being produced in preparation for the real thing to conduct a cislunar flight in 2018.
The Orion crew module pathfinder is set to undergo welding later this summer, with the first steps in that process beginning now. The pathfinder is a full-scale version of the current version of NASA’s next crew-rated spacecraft. It is not, however, a version that will ever fly. The pathfinder is used to prove out manufacturing and assembly procedures that will be used on actual flight-ready vehicles.
A number of Orion’s primary structure components are already at Michoud for processing. The MAF is also where many of the elements of SLS’s core stage are being produced by Boeing.
A test flight carried out by an uncrewed Orion last winter provided engineers at Lockheed Martin and NASA with data in terms of where the vessel was “over-produced” – this means that technicians can now go back and reduce the amount of aluminum used in these particular sections.
“As part of an ongoing mass reduction effort, we’ve decreased the number of pressure vessel pieces that need to be welded together. For example, three pieces made up the EFT-1 aft bulkhead, but now, the EM-1 aft bulkhead will be just one piece. So because of these design changes, we have to use the Orion pathfinder to demonstrate and test the welding process before we do anything on actual flight hardware. We expect the EM-1 pathfinder to be finished in September,” Lockheed Martin’s Allison Rakes told SpaceFlight Insider.
NASA hopes that SLS and Orion will allow the space agency to send crews to exotic locales like a boulder that an automated spacecraft will retrieve from an asteroid and place in lunar orbit. This mission should take place sometime in the mid-2020s. This, however, is just the warm up for the “main event” – crewed missions to the planet Mars.
As noted, Orion has already taken to the skies, as part of the Exploration Test Flight 1 mission, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. This was necessitated because SLS is still under development and, wanting to accelerate the pace of their efforts, NASA tapped United Launch Alliance to launch Orion on a flight some 3,600 miles (5,794 kilometers) beyond our world. This mission helped test the AVCOAT heat shield that will be used on future versions of the spacecraft.
To ensure that the more sophisticated versions of Orion are produced correctly the first time, it means testing out methodologies early on.
“Starting to put together the main structure of the Orion pathfinder is a big deal for us because it allows us to make sure we have everything in order before we start getting flight hardware welded,” said Scott Wilson, manager of production and operations for the Orion Program during the initial stages of the pathfinder’s assembly this past May. “A few upgrades to the crew module structure have been made since we flew Orion’s test flight several months ago, so proving out our tooling and design changes is really key.”
Orion is designed to carry a crew of up to six for periods lasting as long as 21 days. In terms of an actual mission to Mars, however, Orion would only be the vehicle to get crews out of Earth’s atmosphere and return them safely to Earth. This was highlighted by NASA’s Orion program head during an interview with SpaceFlight Insider last year.
“If we flew six people, that means we can’t do 21 days, it’d have to be a shorter mission. This type of design provides a great deal of flexibility. On a lot of these proposed Mars missions, you have six person crews – that is actually on the surface. So Orion would be perfect for launching them up to this Mars Transfer System and then letting them enter directly back to the surface on their return to Earth,” Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion Program Manager said.
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.