Orion update: Lighting the fire of awareness – Part 1
Officials with NASA sat down with SpaceFlight Insider to discuss the current status of the Orion Program, which evolved into discussions on how the space agency is working to spread the word about the new crew-rated capsule as well as the ties that the program has with past efforts—and more.
SpaceFlight Insider first spoke with NASA’s Orion Program Manager, Mark Kirasich, who was in New York City in conjunction with the Intrepid Museum’s Space & Science Festival. Kirasich spoke at length about the spacecraft, the speeches given at venues, and what the future holds for NASA’s crewed spacecraft.
SFI: Can you start by telling us a bit about where you are at today—and why you’re there?
Mark Kirasich: “We’re here as part of an Intrepid space and science special event this week, so it’s going to be a lot of fun to meet people and talk about NASA’s plans.”
SFI: So, obviously, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, and [the Space Shuttle] Enterprise is all very cool, but I want to pick your brain about something that is more recent—Orion.
Mark Kirasich: “Wow, you and me both! I’m ready!”
Mark Kirasich: “All right, great. Mind if I just take a step back and tell you where we’ve been, then where we’re going?”
SFI: That sounds perfect.
Mark Kirasich: “Two test flights are behind us and two are in front of us. We flew our first test, our abort system, in May of 2010 from the White Sands Test Facility, and it was incredibly successful. Then we flew Exploration Flight Test One [EFT-1], which was our first overall flight test in December of 2014, and it went amazingly well. Since that time, we’ve been focused on our next two flights: Exploration Mission One, in which Orion will fly for the first time on the Space Launch System, which is our country’s new heavy-lift launch system and it’s being put together by Marshall Space Flight Center and their prime contractor Boeing.
“That will be the first time an Orion capsule flies on SLS and also goes beyond Earth orbit. So we’re very excited about that. That’s going to be a lunar-orbital mission. And then the flight after that—actually I’m going to tell you how we’re going to accelerate it—is Ascent Abort 2. It’s the second test of our abort system, where we’re going to actually launch the capsule and the abort system on a booster rocket that will simulate SLS and will test an in-flight abort.
“So those two flights are upcoming. After we have that, we’ll be ready for our first human launch, Exploration Mission Two, also on SLS. And that’ll be the first time humans travel beyond Earth orbit since the last Apollo mission. That’s my roadmap. Right now we are in the thick – you would not believe how much hardware we have in the pipes. I say across the country, I really need to say around the world because we have  European partner[s]—the European Space Agency and Airbus.”
SFI: Can you get our viewers up-to-speed about the latest in terms of Orion and NASA’s Exploration Mission 1?
Mark Kirasich: “Sure. The Exploration Mission 1 Crew Module is in the Kennedy Space Center O&C [Operations and Checkout] building, where our Lockheed Martin Orion final assembly building is and it is going really well. I don’t know if you’ve seen a picture lately, but it’s beautiful. All of the plumbing is installed, all of the propellant systems, the ECLSS systems, power, secondary structure. We are today installing the avionics boxes. A slew of them have arrived in the last week or two, and we are heading for a first power-up later this month. It will be the first time we’re going to power up the Exploration Mission 1 spacecraft, so it’s doing great.
“The other we’re building in the O&C Building is the called the Crew Module Adapter. It’s what goes on top of the ESA Service Module, and then we put the Crew Module on top of that. It’s coming together, it’s doing well.
“Traveling to Bremen, Germany. I believe you know about our ESA partners. The ESA Service Module is being assembled by Airbus in their factory in Bremen, Germany, and it is coming along well. It’s a beautiful piece of flight hardware. They’re working some suppliers, some supplier challenges, getting some of their components delivered. So they’re working through that.
“So we’ve got all of the EM-1 hardware coming together: the launch abort system [LAS]; the jettison motor will be poured here in a month or two. The abort—it’s an inert motor on EM-1. It is nearly fully assembled, so it’s coming together well. On top of that, we have our structural test article—which right now has a service module, a crew module, and a LAS—are all being structurally tested. Pushed and pulled and shaken and exposed to acoustic loads. And then, in about a month, we put together the integrated stack, to stack those things together, and that’s in Denver. We have a parachute drop test in the desert. We are doing recovery tests with help from the Coast Guard in the Gulf of Mexico. So everywhere you look, every day there’s something going on with Orion. There’s a lot of activity going on.”
SFI: There was a rash of stories about “NASA doesn’t have the money to send astronauts to Mars, so…”. The question I have there is, is that an accurate assessment and, more importantly, if it is, then what other side missions—and I’m a Moon-first person myself—is that the sort of thing you’re looking at? How will Orion be used for its first missions?
Mark Kirasich: “I’m not sure I’m smart enough to answer your specific question about Mars. I’m really focused on the near-term horizon, which is the path to get to Mars, and we just this past year announced a really good plan that involves some cislunar operations as a way to prepare humans to travel to Mars for the first time. Orion and SLS are key elements of that. We have the money—we have the funding we need. We have the support in Congress and we’re really pleased by the new President’s enthusiasm for space exploration.
“At the funding levels we’re getting, Orion, SLS, the Ground Ops pieces—all of the elements of the current architecture—can support their parts in this business and this new capability where we travel to cislunar space first, and we’ll learn in lunar orbit how to live and work in a way where we’re really not close to the Earth. We cannot be Earth-dependent, so we’ll build up capabilities there, we’ll stay there for longer and longer periods of time, and we’ll develop the technologies we need: the environment control, the regenerative way of environmental control, the propulsion capabilities, the ion engines, that are part of the cislunar plan. All of those pieces are coming together now.
“Our boss, Bill Gerstenmaier in Human Exploration, is putting together this architecture. Right now, I can tell you with the funding we have, we can do our piece of that. Right now that’s my horizon, through the late 2020s, to make sure we can demonstrate cislunar missions.”
SFI: Okay. We’re curious if NASA is looking at a “Moon, Mars, and beyond” kind of philosophy here…
Mark Kirasich: “Yes.”
SFI: …which a lot of us old-time space people are saying, “Orion is really good, and SLS is great for developing a highway out into the Solar System. You start nearby and you eventually go further and further.” Do you see Orion being used for more and more of that, or are we more Journey-to-Mars-centric?
Mark Kirasich: “Let me make sure I get all your points. From day one we’ve tried to make Orion as flexible and capable as possible. We’ve worked really hard to get mass out, to get weight out […]. Generally what we’ve seen—and you know over the past few years we’ve had a variety of different missions—no matter what the mission, Orion has always been able to fill that mission. What I would call a flexible path first to Moon and then to Mars—Orion absolutely fits into that picture, Orion can support and perform all of those missions.
“The avionics and the equipment, the redundancy in the systems, when we do our probabilistic risk analysis, it shows that these systems can reliably [operate] for very long periods of time. Our systems are regenerative. And then the performance capability—the propellant, where we can go, the orbits we can go into—now clearly we couldn’t go to Mars by ourselves, there will be additional elements of the architecture. But Orion can and, I envision, will be part of these missions first in cislunar and then as we push farther to Mars.”
SFI: Okay, I’ve got an easier question for you. ESA’s already contributing the Service Module for EM-1, and a lot of us in the community look at this as: “It has to be a partnership. It can’t be a unilateral effort.” So can we expect to see these missions to the Moon and Mars; instead of it being NASA—you know, you plant the flags and you’re on your way—it’s more of a NASA-ESA-Canadian-and-other-space-agency initiative?
Mark Kirasich: “Yeah, I think Bill Gerstenmaier, who’s assembling this, believes that to do these very challenging missions, we do need international collaboration. That’s why, in 2013, we forged the very first international partnership in the new exploration program with the European Space Agency. They’re part of Orion, and they’re not just any old part, they are a really critical part.
“They built something we call the ESA Service Module, and it has some really key functions in it. It has all of the propellant[s] for our translation maneuvers; it includes the solar arrays and power generation equipment, so all of the electrical power generation on orbit is done from there. And the cooling system, the radiators on the Service Module are a really critical piece, and we put them in a really integral, critical-path role in Orion and exploration. And from the start, the intent was to expand the collaboration to the future elements, beyond Orion, beyond SLS, beyond the Ground Systems; the elements that we’ll need to put in lunar orbit, the elements that we’ll need for Mars.”
SFI: Okay, so you’re on the deck there [on Intrepid], you’re probably going to be seeing Enterprise later today. In closing, tell us a little bit about your feelings on the deck there, and how we had this one great program we retired a few years ago and now we’re on to the new big thing. One of the questions we always close with is: If you had to relay the most salient, important point to the general public, what would be about Orion and SLS?
Mark Kirasich: “When I walk around the decks here, the reason I’m with NASA today is [that] when I was a kid, in 1969, I watched when Neil and Buzz stepped foot on the Moon for the first time. And then I watched the military airplanes because they were really pushing the state of the art, and that’s what motivated me. It motivated me to want to get interested in technology, science, and engineering, and come in and do these really bold things. And when I walked through Intrepid today, many of these aircraft, even many of these submarines that I watched as a kid, I found here today.
“That’s what motivated me to do what I did, and I believe our generation of scientists and engineers—whether you’re in the aerospace industry or the computer world or the biomedical industry—they’re pushing the state of the art. What our country’s done over our generation has an amazing [role] in taking our country forward—and I think that’s what especially the Apollo program did for me—I believe that’s what SLS and Orion are going to do for the next generation, especially the young.
“People are going to be extremely excited about these missions. And it’s going to motivate people to get into the science and math and engineering, and they may or may not come into the space program. They may become doctors, they’ll become gene slicers, but they’ll be the ones who take what we’re living and push it forward. I’m really convinced of that. You mentioned you were at EFT-1. That day in December 2014—I don’t know about you, but for me it was magical. It was like unbelievable for me and it felt—I might be exaggerating—but for a few minutes it felt like the whole world stopped and watched what we did. And boy, if you think that was exciting for that short-duration flight, just wait ‘til you see what happens when we lift off on the Space Launch System for the first time.”
SFI then spoke with NASA astronaut Lee Morin about the significant outreach efforts that are required to not only keep those involved with the various human space flight efforts involved but also to keep them inspired as well. Tune in to SpaceFlight Insider tomorrow for Morin’s views on this subject.
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.