NASA Glenn welcomes Orion’s European powerhouse for testing
NASA observed an important milestone in the Orion crewed space program on Monday, Nov. 30. During an event held inside the test bays of NASA’s Plum Brook Station testing facility in Sandusky, Ohio, the agency marked the arrival of a structural test model of Orion’s European Service Module (ESM). This was the latest step on the road to the first flight of the spacecraft on the new super heavy-lift Space Launch System booster.
The ESM is set to undergo a rigorous series of structural tests at Plum Brook Station, along with other components of the spacecraft.
Built by the European Space Agency, the ESM marks the first time a foreign space agency has provided a major component for a NASA manned spacecraft.
Plum Brook Station is a sister facility to NASA’s Glenn Research Center located in Cleveland, Ohio. Leading off the media event, NASA Glenn Director Jim Free touted the importance of the ESM’s arrival at the one-of-a-kind test facility.
“Plum Brook Station is the only place you can test a vehicle of this size,” Free said, “fully deployed, in its launch and space configuration, which is so important in maturing that mission to success.”
The arrival of the ESM is a long-awaited event at Plum Brook Station. It marks the beginning of a long testing campaign for the Orion spacecraft components, a campaign that will prepare Orion for the upcoming uncrewed Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) currently scheduled for a 2018 launch date.
The facility underwent a $130 million upgrade to prepare for Orion’s testing. Its giant Space Power Facility already housed the world’s largest vacuum chamber, at 100 feet (30 meters) wide and 122 feet (37 meters) tall. It is now also equipped with a powerful acoustic testing chamber, to check spacecraft components to see if they can handle the tremendous sound pressure during launch. The facility is also equipped with a gigantic mechanical vibration table to simulate the intense vibrations the spacecraft will experience atop the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
Numerous engineers and administrators from ESA, who will be living in Ohio during the test campaign, were on hand for the event. Orion Program Manager Mark Kirasich spoke of ESA’s importance in terms of helping NASA return to the business of human missions into deep space.
“The ESM is a critical element of Orion,” Kirasich said. “That’s why today is such a great day. Because this beautiful piece of hardware right behind me is a sign of the progress we’ve made over the three years of our relationship with the European Space Agency – that they and their contractors delivered this hardware the way that they did.”
Greg Williams, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, echoed those thoughts.
“You hear people say that we should do international collaboration in space because no single nation can afford to do these missions,” Williams said. “Well, that’s probably true. But what’s more important is this – we don’t want to go alone. We want to go as international partners. We want to get international partners involved in this endeavor. I think it says a lot about what we want to accomplish for humanity, what we want to accomplish as a people.”
Nico Dettman, ESA’s Head of Development, noted the challenges and rewards of international cooperation on Orion.
“The three years of this cooperation have been tough,” he said. “But we have overcome many obstacles and are making great progress. We are very happy to be part of this cooperation, and we are committed to delivering our hardware on time.”
The ESM’s importance to Orion cannot be overstated. It is the powerhouse for the spacecraft, providing the Lockheed-Martin-built crew module with power, propulsion, attitude control, as well as providing water and oxygen to the astronauts. It was built for ESA by prime contractor Airbus Defense and Space, and it is based on the design of ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), a craft with proven reliability in supply missions to the International Space Station (ISS).
Oliver Juckenhofel, Airbus ESM Program Manager, described the important cooperation in the module’s success.
“NASA cannot fly without us, and we cannot fly without them,” he said, “which basically means you have to find solutions. And that is the basic prerequisite of design. Finding solutions to problems. And what I have seen in the cooperation of these teams so far has been amazing.”
The ESM test article arrived at Plum Brook Station on Nov. 10. The crew module adapter, which connects the ESM to the wider circumference crew module, arrived this past summer. The service module adapter, which connects the ESM to the SLS launch vehicle, as well as the protective fairings that will surround the spacecraft, has also recently arrived.
The testing these components will undergo will all be structural stress tests. They will be shaken atop the new Mechanical Vibration Facility (MVF), an $8 million, 22-foot (7-meter) wide aluminum shake table that will vibrate the spacecraft with its high-powered servo-hydraulic actuators, simulating the vibration of launch. Then the components will be subjected to the Reverberant Acoustic Test Facility (RATF), a 57-foot (17-meter) tall wall of nitrogen gas-powered horns that will hammer the spacecraft with a reverberating sound assault of 163 decibels, simulating the sound pressures of launch atop the SLS. It is the most powerful acoustic facility in the world, out-performing all others by a factor of ten.
Some pyrotechnic tests will also be conducted, testing the opening and deployment of the ESM’s solar panels. No space environment testing in the sealed vacuum chamber will be conducted on these test articles in this round of testing. Mark Kirasich explained the timing and general chronology of the Orion testing schedule.
“When we brought ESA onboard in 2012 we were well on our way to EFT 1,” Kirasich said. EFT-1, or Exploration Flight Test-1, was Orion’s first unmanned test flight into orbit, completed last December. “So when they started on their structural test article, we were a little bit out of phase. We were not ready to provide high fidelity crew modules and launch abort systems for testing. So when we are done with this series of testing, we’ll ship the ESM back to be refurbished (by ESA at Airbus) and we’ll go through a second set of structural test articles with our EM-1 articles.”
Kirasich went on to note that the timetable of events required NASA’s ESA counterparts to move quickly.
“This first set of tests is primarily for the Europeans,” he explained to SpaceFlight Insider. “They needed data early and fast back to Europe to inform their EM-1 designs, so we did the best we could to meet up with them here. This set of tests runs from now until late next summer. We don’t get fully synchronized until we get our EM-1 units down at the Cape in early 2017.”
The EM-1 mission will be the first uncrewed launch of the Orion spacecraft atop the SLS launch vehicle, currently under development at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana. The SLS will launch the empty Orion on a 7-day lunar orbital mission, currently scheduled for sometime in late 2018. The launch will come at the end of a final round of testing at Plum Brook Station.
“When we get the EM-1 flight articles at the Kennedy Space Center in early 2017, we complete the assembly, we mate them together, and we will ship them up here in an integrated fashion,” Kirasich said. “At that point the integrated stack will go into the vacuum chamber. That should be in mid-2017.”
The fully stacked EM-1 flight articles will undergo a full round of testing in the vacuum chamber and all of Plum Brook’s facilities before being shipped back to KSC. When the testing is completed and Orion rolls to the launch pad, it is described by NASA as being the most thoroughly and rigorously tested spacecraft in the history of space flight.
Orion is an important part of NASA’s effort to take humans further into space than ever before. The Orion spacecraft is seen as an integral part of future human missions far beyond Earth orbit, to nearby asteroids, and eventually to Mars.
Michael Cole is a life-long space flight enthusiast and author of some 36 educational books on space flight and astronomy for Enslow Publishers. He lives in Findlay, Ohio, not far from Neil Armstrong’s birthplace of Wapakoneta. His interest in space, and his background in journalism and public relations suit him for his focus on research and development activities at NASA Glenn Research Center, and its Plum Brook Station testing facility, both in northeastern Ohio. Cole reached out to SpaceFlight Insider and asked to join SFI as the first member of the organization’s “Team Glenn.”