Spaceflight Insider

Orion update for January 2017

NASA's Orion spacecraft in orbit above the Moon. Image Credit Nathan Koga SpaceFlight Insider

NASA continues to prepare for the first combined flight of its crew-rated Orion spacecraft and super heavy-lift booster, the Space Launch System in late 2018. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

Before the end of 2016, progress on NASA’s Orion capsule for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) took some significant leaps forward. As the new year takes its first steps, the space agency and prime contractor working on Orion, Lockheed Martin, are looking to send a crew-rated spacecraft further than has ever been attempted before.

In mid-November of last year, the heat shield underwent rigorous new testing to ensure. As part of the heat shield system, an Ocean Optics STS spectrometer will gather data to assess how the shield is reacting to the hot gasses produced as the capsule descends through Earth’s dense atmosphere.

The spectrometer should allow NASA to improve their radiation heating models in terms of the vehicle’s Thermal Protection Systems (TPS). Currently, the spectrometer is undergoing heat testing to determine how the instrument reacts to temperature changes. In spring (of 2017), the spectrometer will begin flight certification testing.

Orion's Service Module Engine

Orion’s Service Module Engine. (Click to enlarge) Photo Credit: NASA

This past November, the Orion crew module adapter (CMA) was situated on a test stand and moved into a temporary clean room at Kennedy Space Center. The CMA will connect the Orion capsule to the service module that is being built by the European Space Agency (ESA). As it is currently scheduled, the CMA will be integrated with propellant, environmental, and life support systems over the next few months.

Along with the CMA, the Orion structural test article (STA) arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and is expected to undergo mechanical assembly over the next few months before being shipped to Lockheed Martin in Colorado for further testing.

At the beginning of 2017, the Orion service module engine was delivered to Airbus Defense and Space in Germany to be integrated with the service module. The module engine, designed to steer Orion during EM-1, was refurbished from a former space shuttle maneuvering system.

Once completed, the ESA-built service module will boast 33 engines and thrusters with the main engine being a refurbished OMS (AJ10-190) Space Shuttle engine. The service module is expected to arrive at Kennedy Space Center once the engines have been integrated.

Looking ahead into 2017, the Orion capsule is expected to go online starting in the spring. For the first time since the beginning of the systems integration in 2016, the computers housed in the Orion crew module will be turned on to verify the module is able to route power and properly interpret commands.

By the summer of 2017, the heat shield will be integrated onto the crew module, allowing it to be stacked atop the service module. This integration point is critical and must be completed before the entirety of the Space Launch Systems rocket (SLS) arrives from NASA’s Plum Brook Station in 2018.

As 2017 progresses, construction on the next Orion crew module for the first crewed flight will begin, aiming for a launch sometime in the early 2020s. In the meantime, testing continues on all structures comprising the EM-1 Orion module and the core components needed for flight and additional data collection. Once the crew module, heat shield, and service module have been successfully integrated, the module will undergo final testing before being seated atop the SLS.

“2016 was an intense year with a flurry of activity throughout every corner of the Orion program,” Allison Miller, Lockheed Martin Orion spokesperson told SpaceFlight Insider. “This year will be no different as we continue to prepare for Exploration Mission-1 in 2018.”

Video Courtesy of NASA Johnson



Mackenzie Kane is currently working towards receiving her Bachelors degree in Planetary Sciences and Physics at the Florida Institute of Technology. For the past several years, Kane's area of active research has been with NASA's Kepler Space Telescope mission and its search for extrasolar planets. Kane has a deep love of learning about the mysteries that space holds through the ever-growing technology that is launched into orbit. My goal upon graduation is to continue writing about the exciting research and technology furthering our presence in space and delivering it to the public in easily accessible ways. Kane was accepted as the second intern from Florida Tech to write for SpaceFlight Insider and our outlet will now work to provide her with access and experience.

Reader Comments

I wonder how many new space shuttles could have been built and flown with the amount of time and money spent on this project. Does Michoud have a 30-minute work week? Why is Orion and SLS taking so damn long to manifest?!??! Somebody five miles away sneezes and it’s another 6 month delay and $XX overrun.

As there is a 3 year gap between the first 2 Orion missions, doesn’t it make sense to reuse the same spacecraft rather than build a second one?

So, SLS will be throwing away four space shuttle main engines (SSMEs) and two five segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) on every flight while Orion throws away a shuttle orbital maneuvering system engine (OMS engine) on every flight. Turning reusable engines and motors into disposable ones does not make a lot of sense to me. Not recovering these may “save” some money, but there is zero opportunity for inspections if they are not recovered. Inspections can discover problems before they become failures (e.g. o-ring erosion in the space shuttle SRBs was documented well before the Challenger disaster).

There is no need to recover and reuse SLS & Orion parts with the very low flight rate expected. It would be much more expensive to refurb and reuse it.

Yes, some engineering data could be gained by recovery, but NASA has added additional sensors to both SLS & Orion to make up for this lack of recovery.

@edgar, the pace you have seen is due to development. As NASA moves away from development to pure production, the pace of construction will increase, to the point of 1 SLS & Orion per year. We may even see 2 SLS & Orion launches in a single year.

It makes no sense to me the build a billion dollar throw away rocket with a $500 million dollar space craft on it and launch four people into space every three or four years. Put the money into SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System (ITS)or Blue Origin’s New Glenn reusable rocket and it will be money better spent. We maybe able to put thousands of people into space rather than four every few years.

That’s because you’re: (A.) Leaving out that NASA is planning to use SLS / Orion for deep space missions to the Moon, asteroids Mars. You’re trying to compare missions to deep space (millions of miles) to those of maybe 260 miles up. SpaceX / Blue Origin have no crewed spaceflight experience (and SpaceX has had two major disasters in the past 1.5 years). It’d be stupid to back either company to the tune you describe until they get some.

(B.) Being dishonest about the launch rate of SLS. Not sure why you’re lying, but NASA has said they want to fly 1-2 missions per year – not once every 3-4 years.

It makes no sense because you’re either oblivious to the truth – or being dishonest. Which is it?

Also, which mission were you the “Commander” of – CRS-7 or Amos 6?

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