NASA’s Morpheus awake from slumber, ascends at Kennedy Space Center
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla — NASA’s Morpheus test article has made a triumphant return to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. A little less than a year-and-a-half after the first Morpheus crashed at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF), the second Morpheus has started conducting test flights. Yesterday, the second lander conducted a free-flight at KSC, which was streamed live on the Project Morpheus website for viewers to see. On Wednesday, January 15, a Test Readiness Review was conducted to make sure the vehicle was flight ready. Today, the media was invited out to view the craft and talk to the folks who are working to revolutionize the method in which space missions are conducted.
Jenny Devolites, Systems Engineering and Integration (SE&I) Lead for the project, discussed the mood surrounding the new lander and tests in a recent blog post on the website. Understandably, the team was disheartened after the crash of the first lander in August 2012.
Devolites wrote, “Shortly after the crash, our Project Manager, Jon Olansen, gathered the sad but resolute team at the KSC hazard field landing pad and reiterated, “This is why we test. We keep the dream, we learn from our failures, and we try again.”
One is reminded of the May 1968 crash of the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV). During this incident, astronaut Neil Armstrong, who was piloting that vehicle, was forced to eject from the LLRV during a test flight; the vehicle was destroyed. The test vehicle was built again, and a little more than a year later, Armstrong successfully set the Apollo Lunar Module on the surface of the Moon. The NASA team has made a habit of picking up the pieces of such incidents and starting over.
Try again they did, and the team has enjoyed several successful free flights of its new Bravo Lander. On December 17, it conducted a near-pinpoint landing within four inches of its target following one of these test flights. Devolites also discussed the smaller-budget nature of the project, in comparison to other projects that use or used reusable components (the Morpheus lander is intended to make multiple flights). In contrast to the budget for a shuttle mission ran into the millions of dollars, the budget for building a new Morpheus lander was $750,000, which is considered to be a comparatively lean cost for spaceflight hardware. The project also has a small team compared to the legions required to assemble the space shuttle.
While, as mentioned, the failure which saw the loss of the last test article was a blow to the team – it also served to produce a better vehicle as well as other systems which are used to conduct these tests. A fact highlighted during the Jan. 17 media event.
“…more than 70 upgrades were made to the design when building the next prototype launch vehicle. These upgrades were made to both the vehicle itself as well as ground support systems including a flame trench to the pad, this additions allowed for reduced the acoustic reverberations at the time of engine ignition and liftoff,” Olansen said.
Devolites also underscored these views in her online commentary.
“Many rocket engines and spacecraft are single-use. Our little vertical test bed – our lander – is also designed to be reusable. But we don’t have thousands upon thousands of team members or a budget like that – we are a small project with less than 50 people (and that’s padding the number). So just doing one successful free flight would be a career achievement – but two in one week is a tribute to the hard work and efforts by a team that has become like family,” Devolites wrote.
According to Devolites, this month the Bravo lander will be tested in a series of ever-more challenging flight trajectories. The lander’s engines produce 5,000 pounds of thrust, making it one to watch – one day, the Morpheus lander may be used in possible lunar landing missions.
Perhaps Devolites’ blog post sums up the feelings about the project best. While she expressed disappointment at the unfortunate fate of the Alpha test vehicle, she underscored the hope that she and others possess for the Bravo vehicle as it continues to make strides in testing.
“The  crash itself had happened so fast that there was barely time to comprehend what happened. But there was the wreck, our wonderful creation, smashed and burned,” she related. However, she added upon seeing the new vehicle, “I watched it roll in and marveled at the gift I have been given to be an aerospace engineer on a project such as this one.”
One of the ground support systems that was redesigned after the accident, was the actual launch pad itself. This structure is a movable concrete pad. As the testing continues and flights expand higher and farther, this pad can be moved to various sites at KSC while keeping the “Moonscape” landing area in its permanent location at KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility.
There are no plans for space missions for Morpheus as this project is to develop systems for future crewed and uncrewed missions conducted by the space agency.
Mike Howard was born on Florida's Space Coast in 1961, growing up on the beaches near the Kennedy Space Center when rockets first started to fly into space. As a small boy, one of the first photographs he took was in July 1969 - of the Apollo 11 launch to the Moon with his father's Nikon. With over 20 years of professional photographic experience Howard has been published in various media including Florida Today, Air and Space Magazine and has worked with SpaceX and Space Florida as well as other news outlets. In 1998 his company started offering destination wedding photography services in the Cocoa Beach area and in 2005 Michael Howard Photography L.L.C. was formed.