Tested, tempered, triumphant – Orion begins the long journey home
NASA’s Orion spacecraft, fresh off the heels of its successful first flight on Dec. 5 – is on its way back to the space agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Engineers have already started to look at the capsule-shaped craft’s heat shield – and the precious information within its data recorders. Exploration Flight Test 1 or “EFT-1” – was touted as a mission flown to teach those working on the spacecraft how it would behave in the extreme environment of space. As noted, technicians have removed samples from the heat shield so as to study its ablation rates and in so doing marked the spacecraft’s second voyage – home – as well as efforts by those working on Orion to learn the important lessons taught by the flight of EFT-1.
Those samples, along with some of Orion’s data recorders were transported to Lockheed Martin (the spacecraft’s manufacturer) facilities located in California for processing.
A truck will now transport Orion back to KSC, upon arriving there it will be poured over by engineers with NASA and Lockheed Martin. They will carefully examine what the spacecraft is telling them via its instruments, onboard computers – even how its structure responded to the 4.5 hour-long mission.
“Part of the reason that this mission is exciting – is that it was a difficult mission, it’s a tough environment to fly through, it’s tough objectives that we set for this flight – but it appears that Orion and the Delta IV Heavy were nearly flawless…,” said NASA’s Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer during a press conference held after Orion splashed down off the Coast of San Diego, California.
Lockheed Martin is contractually obligated to provide a complete data analysis report to NASA as to how Orion performed during EFT-1. Key information as to how well the spacecraft handled the mission as well as suggestions of what the next steps in the spacecraft’s development should be – will now be passed on to the Space Agency.
After taking to the early-morning Florida skies at 7:05 a.m. EST on Dec. 5, atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket – the spacecraft carried out two orbits above our world. The highest of these took Orion out some 3,600 miles (5,800 km) – further than any crew-rated vessel has flown since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 and more than 10 times further than the International Space Station currently orbits.
This high-apogee orbit meant that the spacecraft would incur speeds upon reentering the Earth’s atmosphere which reached approximately 20,000 miles (32,000 km/h; 8,900 m/s) per hour.
With the heat shield coming into contact with Earth’s atmosphere at these speeds – it should come as little surprise that the temperatures that this critical section of the spacecraft saw temperatures that reached approximately 4,000 °F (2,200 °C).
The Orion that carried out the EFT-1 mission lacked an actual Service Module and, as it lacked the propulsive elements that the SM would have provided, relied on the upper stage of its Delta IV launch vehicle for the thrust it required to carry out its mission. The spacecraft would stay attached to the upper stage up until it reentered the atmosphere.
Moreover, as Orion lacked the solar arrays that a crewed version would have, it relied on batteries for power. Finally, as the spacecraft would not carry crew, the craft only had the jettison motor element of the Launch Abort System (LAS) active during this flight (all other elements were inert). With EFT-1 successfully behind it – this particular Orion’s job – is still not done.
The Orion that carried out EFT-1 will now be processed in preparation for Ascent Abort 2, a test of the LAS. At present, this is slated to take place in 2018 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 46 in Florida. NASA has procured a Peacekeeper missile’s upper stage, which will launch Orion, so that the LAS can be tested. Orion’s LAS is equipped with three powerful motors capable of pulling the craft and its precious astronaut cargo – up to a mile and a half away from an emergency on the launch pad. It has been estimated by ATK’s (the manufacturer of the LAS) Brian Duffy – that if this were activated – astronauts would experience up to 15 Gs (fifteen times the force of gravity).
Although the periods between events relating to Orion are, at present, about 3-4 years apart – Lockheed Martin is already gathering the components and building the infrastructure required for the first flight of the craft atop NASA’s new heavy-lift booster – the Space Launch System or “SLS.” This mission, dubbed Exploration Mission 1 or “EM-1” – is currently set to take place in 2018.
“The 1,200 on-board sensors will provide us an ocean of information about everything from the effects of space radiation on our avionics to the environment inside the crew cabin,” said Lockheed Martin’s Vice President and Orion Program Manager Mike Hawes. “What we learn from this flight will improve Orion’s designs and technology, and help us make future vehicles the best they can be.”
The mission was a boost for NASA, one that a NASA official noted as the agency and its contractors presented the results of the spacecraft’s arrival back to Earth.
“I don’t think I have ever been in a press event where you applauded when we were coming in – you’re usually sharpening your pencils and scowling at me with grimaces on your face,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration & Operations William Gerstenmaier. “Thank you for catching that spirit that I think we all feel as human beings that, we as a species, are meant to push human presence into the solar system and this is a first step in starting to do that.”
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.