Orion spacecraft hardware & safety procedures readied for Exploration Mission 1
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The European Space Agency (ESA) delivers. At least, that might be what some at NASA are thinking right now. ESA’s contribution to the U.S. space agency’s maiden flight of the combined stack of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft (the first Orion was launched in 2014 on Exploration Flight Test 1) has arrived. But that’s not the only event relating to Orion that has taken place recently.
Touching down in Florida’s Space Coast Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, after a flight from Germany, the service module (SM) for the second Orion flight and the first for the agency’s massive super-heavy lift rocket—the Space Launch System (SLS)—is ready to be married to the spacecraft’s crew module for its planned 2020 Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) flight.
While Orion is being built by the spacecraft’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, the SM was constructed by Airbus and is based off of ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle. NASA and ESA’s collaboration on the International Space Station program helped establish this new initiative.
“We have a strong foundation of cooperation with ESA through the International Space Station partnership, and the arrival of the service module signifies that our international collaboration extends to our deep space human exploration efforts as well,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations.
With the SM at KSC, it will now undergo testing and integrated with the rest of the Orion spacecraft. The SM is tasked with handling Orion’s “in-space maneuvering” during the course of the mission. On a larger scale, it will also unleash the “punch” required to send Orion into (and out of) lunar orbit.
“Our teams have worked together incredibly hard to develop a service module that will make missions to the Moon and beyond a reality,” said Mark Kirasich, NASA’s Orion program manager. “It is quite an accomplishment of ESA and Airbus to have completed the developmental work on the module and have this major delivery milestone behind us.”
The service module is made up of some 20,000 components, many of which provide the complete spacecraft with the power it needs to accomplish its objectives. The power-related elements include four solar arrays and an orbital maneuvering system engine. Some of its elements do not, however, relate to power-production and propulsion. The SM is also the part of Orion that provides the air and water for the crews that will fly on the spacecraft’s first flights.
Now that it’s at KSC, engineers will begin the process of function tests to ensure that the SM is ready to be integrated into Orion’s crew module (CM). Once the two components have been merged, the spacecraft will then be sent to NASA’s Glenn Research Center’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio in 2019. Once there, two months of additional testing in a vacuum chamber will take place. This will be done to validate that the EM-1 Orion is ready to handle the hostile space environment. After it has proven itself, it will be sent back to Kennedy to be prepped for flight.
While the EM-1 Orion will fly without any astronauts on board, it will be the first crew-rated spacecraft to venture to the Moon’s sphere of influence in almost half a century (the last being the Apollo 17 mission in December of 1972). During EM-1, NASA will work to ensure that Orion is protected as much as possible so that the agency can retrieve data important to crew safety on EM-2. To gain this information Orion will journey some 40,000 miles (64,374 kilometers) past the Moon.
Meanwhile on the other side of the United States, the U.S. Navy trained to recover Orion from the Pacific Ocean after the spacecraft splashes down upon completing its mission. This training and testing has been ongoing from the end of October through early November.
NASA showed the progress it has made on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at Pier 6 of the Naval Station San Diego. The occasion was one held to highlight that not all aspects of EM-1 pertain to hardware, astronauts or engineers. In this case, it was a joint effort between NASA, the U.S. Navy and others—Underway Recovery Test 7.
“On behalf of the 400 Sailors and Marines of the U.S.S. John P Murtha, I would like to say what an honor and privilege it was to work with NASA these past few months, culminating in our operations at sea these past few days,” Captain Anthony Roach, the Commanding Officer in charge of the U.S.S John P Murtha said.
For those familiar with the difficulties involved with human spaceflight, these training sessions are critical.
“I was observing the teams, the NASA teams and the Navy teams, and seeing them work, sometimes struggling, to figure out how to get all this done and by the time this exercise was over, they were well-oiled machinery. They were working together really really well in both a variety of sea-states and in both daytime and nighttime operations. I have no doubt that when its time to fly the actual Orion capsule, and it’s coming back from its lunar orbit, and it splashes down off the coast of San Diego, that we’ll be able to get the crew out and get the capsule recovered,” veteran NASA astronaut Don Pettit said.
While not a flight-rated version of Orion, the mock up helps those whose job it is to retrieve the spacecraft from the ocean in learning how to properly carry out their tasks.
“This is just a mock capsule, it doesn’t even open up, we’ve put some decals on it so we can train as effectively as possible,” NASA’s NASA Landing and Recovery Director Melissa Jones told SpaceFlight Insider. “After we do EM-1, which is the uncrewed test flight, we have another trainer that we’re developing that actually has an interior that will allow us to train with the astronauts. That will be after EM-1 in preparation for EM-2.”
There are two recovery methods, the “well deck recovery” method and the “open water recover” method. Both methods have their own, specialized set of ground support equipment. Whereas the open water method uses inflatables and a stabilization collar (to help dampen the impact of the spacecraft’s motion), the well deck method would see the spacecraft brought into the recovery ship via an opening at the sea line.
Video courtesy of NASA
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.