Spaceflight Insider

Orion update: Lighting the fire of awareness – Part 2

NASA Orion spacecraft departing Earth orbit. NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA has deployed its officials, including the agency’s astronauts, to help inspire those who are working to produce the rockets and spacecraft that are designed to propel crews further into space than has ever been attempted before. Image Credit: NASA

SpaceFlight Insider continues its update of recent developments with NASA’s Orion spacecraft; more specifically, public outreach efforts that the U.S. space agency is undertaking to prepare the nation for its return to exploring deep space—an undertaking it has not attempted since the historic Apollo 17 mission, which concluded in December 1972. During a recent event held at the AMRO Fabricating Facility in South El Monte, California, NASA astronaut Lee Morin had a chance to review progress being made—and to thank those who are working on these flight systems.

When it comes to inspiring people about the U.S.’ efforts to explore the deep reaches of the Solar System, few people can inspire like an astronaut. SpaceFlight Insider spoke with NASA astronaut Lee Morin about what the space agency had him doing to provide not just an understanding of space but also an excitement for what awaits.

NASA astronaut Lee Morin (official portrait)

Official NASA astronaut portrait of Lee Morin (Aug. 30, 2010). Photo Credit: Robert Markowitz / NASA

SFI: For starters, you’re at an event at the AMRO facilities right now, correct?

Morin: “Yes.”

SFI: How are you using this event to inform the public or maybe just the space community about NASA’s new crew-rated spacecraft, Orion?

Morin: “We have a whole system of subcontractors, suppliers, and subcontractor supplier management at NASA, as you may know. And we have small businesses, suppliers, all over the country. And so as they are delivering our hardware, we generally have people that, you know, come and visit them. We take these opportunities to come and thank the team for their hard work, their craftsmanship, and we invite the media out and the local congressionals, mayors, the city people in El Monte; we’re here in South El Monte. It’s a way to shine a light on the businesses doing this great work. It helps the employees. They have a sense of pride, I think, and they’re very proud to work on this program. So it’s a strategy we use to thank all the people that are helping us get to deep space.”

SFI: So let’s talk a bit about that, then. What’s been the reaction of some of the people that you’ve met there today, Lee, in terms of meeting you and their work on Orion? How are they responding to being able to be involved with NASA’s new crew-rated spacecraft?

Morin: “Everyone here’s been very excited. You can see their faces light up. The fact that they get to go out and talk to an astronaut and have their picture taken in front of the hardware they’ve built that one of my colleagues will be flying out beyond the Moon is very exciting. By my coming, it sort of puts a face on it for them in terms of their ultimate customer, and people that betting their lives on their handiwork and craftsmanship.

“I personally have an interest in machining. I was an amateur machinist, so I was treated to sort of a behind-the-scenes look and getting to look at some of the machines and talk to some of the people on the line that operate those machines. So for me, that was an exciting trip. But I know that having someone from NASA come out and have an interest in their contribution and what they’re doing means a lot to them as well.”

SFI: As much as you’re inspiring the folks, I remember that Gus Grissom did a tour back in the Apollo days, and Gus was known for being a competent engineer, but not much of a spokesman. And he basically looked at the engineers and said, “Do good work.” What have they taught you? I know that any time you interact with folks, it’s always a two-way street. They get to be inspired by seeing the people who are going to fly on these exciting new spacecraft, but what have you personally taken away from this experience today?

Morin: “Well, I always get invigorated talking to the public, whether that’s at a school or at a plant like this. I can just see the enthusiasm of the people. In their day-to-day lives they’re doing their jobs, but what they’re doing in the case here is something that culminates in an important milestone for the country. I think [Barbara Zelon] and her team do a great job conveying that to them: that their role is very important. And traditionally that outreach has been very important because that helps keep the quality up.

“If you have that human face on the parts, it really motivates the entire team to, as Gus said, ‘Do good work.’ But it puts a personal face on it and it makes it a lot more real to them in terms of what their role is. Of course, the part that they’re building today, which is this window panel, this very recognizable panel to many people because it’s the contour of the windows that you can see from the outside so it’s a very, very visible part. Of course, they’re building a lot of other parts, which are less visible but are just as important.”

SFI: So you saw where the window’s being worked on. Could you tell us about some of the other elements that you got a chance to review today?

Morin: “This company’s specialty is making very large, very complicated aluminum panels, which are these curved sections. And it starts out with a big slab of metal, in some cases, it’s as much as six inches thick. Some of the panels they showed us today weighed as much as seven tons—you know, these big pieces of metal—and this company has this process where they remove a lot of that metal.

“In other words, you might end up starting with [a] 5,000-pound piece of aluminum, and after you’ve removed all of the metal, when you’re done, the part might only weigh 300 pounds. So it’s a very subtractive process. What they do is they both remove metal, but then they also have to shape it and bend it in a very precise way back and forth, so it’s real craftsmanship, a real art form to be able to do that. And this company actually does it better than anybody else. And these panels are very important.

“In addition to this panel that is the structural member that holds the windows, so it has the cavities where the windows will be mounted, they also have panels for the tanks of the Space Launch System booster, which will be the largest rocket ever built. That’s the tanks that hold the liquid hydrogen.

“Very similar process: they start with a large slab of aluminum, mill rectangular depressions in it so that they remove most of the weight but keep a lot of the strength, then they roll that into a section and then a number of those are welded together down in New Orleans—they actually finish the tank. So that’s basically what we saw, basically aluminum plates that were very intricately machined and shaped to these conical and cylindrical sections that are later joined to form spacecraft.”

SFI: You’ve obviously had a lot of experience seeing a lot of this hardware produced. Could you provide our readers with some of the differences that you’ve noticed when you’re looking at Orion compared to the stuff you saw produced for Shuttle and other programs?

Morin: “One of the things that’s important to realize is Orion has been a very evolutionary process in terms of the production of the components. The particular piece that we were looking at [had] originally consisted of 37 separate parts. The initial prototypes were built in that way. By building those prototypes and studying them, they found out how not only to remove thousands of pounds of metal (so it went from 4,000 to 2,000 pounds), they also went from 37 separate pieces to, I believe, it’s six pieces.

“So now those six pieces can be welded together. And the process they did here with these parts [makes it] so that they’re much closer to final assembly, whereas the earlier parts—the companies here would make the parts and that part would require a lot more finishing or coatings and so forth would have to be done later.

The panel of Orion’s underlying structure for Exploration Mission-2

The panel of Orion’s underlying structure for Exploration Mission-2 containing the spacecraft’s windows is manufactured by AMRO Fabricating Corp., in South El Monte, California. Photo & Caption Credit: NASA

“Lockheed’s worked with its suppliers to optimize the part in terms of complexity and manufacturability and optimize the part to have more of the process done further up the supply chain, and very importantly, to minimize the weight. So the part does the same job, but it takes only half as much weight, which is so important when you’re talking about these deep-space missions because the energy to get something to the Moon and back [makes weight] critical. If you can save some weight, you really got a lot of leverage out of that.

“It’s an incremental use of a lot of modern machining methods, which are very intensively computer-based, and lots of new materials, and lots of incremental improvements where each little improvement doesn’t seem like that big a deal in itself, but when you put dozens and hundreds of them together, it really adds up to a really significant advance in these components.”

SFI: If there’s one thing that your experiences today—checking out the work that’s being done on Orion—has most intrigued you or the public should be made most aware of, what would it be?

Morin: “I think it was that the employees here presented me with a panel that they 3-D printed, which was a miniature (I think about 1:25 scale) model of the part that is on display in front of the auditorium here. The key point of that is that 3-D printing technology is infusing its way into every phase of manufacturing. Not that the panel itself is 3-D printed, but that more and more 3-D printing is being used as an aid to improve the design or to check parts for fit before you commit to a very costly part. Of course, we’re using 3-D printing a lot ourselves.

“My role is building the cockpit of Orion. We do 3-D printing because we make working models of the display system that the crews interact with. We built a lot of those prototypes with 3-D printing. This is a company that machines metal, and they are using 3-D printing in a big way, and the employees presented this panel to me today, which is a great memento.”

SFI: Lee, thank you for taking the time to speak with Spaceflight Insider today.

Morin: “It was fun, thanks!”

Morin spoke with the teams at AMRO Fabricating Corporation located in South El Monte, California. While there, he had the opportunity to review finished structural test article hardware panels. These had been arranged in order for each section of NASA’s new super-heavy-lift rocket—the Space Launch System, or, as it is more commonly called, “SLS”. The SLS is the chosen launch vehicle that the space agency hopes will restore American independence of launching its astronauts into space when used in tandem with the Orion spacecraft, which is being produced by Lockheed Martin and Airbus.

As is the case with any major initiative, a number of companies and agencies have been tasked with the production of both the SLS and Orion. One of these partners is AMRO, which is helping to build panels for SLS’ core stage, the rocket’s launch vehicle stage adapter (LVSA) and the Orion spacecraft.

Companies and agencies are made up of people, and people are aided in their efforts when they are inspired. NASA astronauts, perhaps better than any other agency official, help to get the word out to those manufacturing these vehicles as to how important their work is, considering that these astronauts are planning on one day using what those firms produce to get NASA back into the business of crewed space exploration.



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,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

Is NASA going to give Space Launch System a proper name? Surely a suitable name could be found. The Ares 5 rocket was a good name

⚠ Commenting Rules

Post Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *