Tossing Orion: NASA Performs Drop Tests, Rocket Checks for Next Spaceship

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A concept image of Ares I crew launch vehicle.
Credit: NASA/MSFC.

NASA has
repeatedly sent scale-sized versions of its planned
Orion spaceship plummeting back to Earth
in a series tests to pinpoint the best way to return future astronauts safely back to terra
firma.

The drop
tests, performed at NASA’s Virginia-based Langley Research Center [image],
are just one of several technical milestones the Orion
spacecraft and Ares
rocket programs hit in recent weeks as the agency pushes ahead with plans
for its space shuttle
successor [image].

  • VIDEO:
    NASA’s Orion Scale Model Drop Tests

“It’s a
technology development effort right now to look at what is the best system for
us to use for landing,” Orion project manager Caris ‘Skip’ Hatfield told SPACE.com,
adding that the capsule-based vehicle will cushion its landing with either
sausage- or wedge-shaped airbags [image]
. “We’re going through now and looking at various configurations of airbags.”

The Orion
project completed a critical system requirements review this month with
Lockheed Martin, NASA’s prime
contractor of the project, which laid the foundation for the spacecraft’s
design and development. NASA also put out a call for proposals this month for
contractors interested in supplying the upper stage of Orion’s Ares 1 rocket
booster [image],
with engine tests for its heavy-lift counterpart — the Ares V [image]
— are also underway.

“I think
we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress,” Hatfield said.

NASA chief
Michael Griffin has said the first crewed flight of an Orion spacecraft and its
Ares booster will
be delayed until at least March 2015 — well after the planned September
2010 retirement of the agency’s aging three-orbiter shuttle fleet — due to budget
issues. That first operational launch was slated for September 2014.

“It doesn’t
change the design so much to have that slip, it’s really a project management
issue,” Hatfield said of the slip, which Griffin has attributed to a $575 million shortfall
in the agency’s expected 2007 exploration budget.

Chubby
spacecraft

Hatfield
said one of Orion’s major steps forward was a successful
weight loss program to shave excess mass off the hefty vehicle.

“We are now
back into the weight requirements where we want to be,” Hatfield said.

A series of
design changes following NASA’s selection of Lockheed Martin to build Orion
capsules found the 50,265-pound (22,800-kilogram) spacecraft to be about 2,976 pounds
(1,350 kilograms) overweight, though they were still light enough reach orbit
atop an Ares 1 rocket, NASA has said.

While
Hatfield pressed his project teams to streamline their systems to eliminate
unnecessary weight wherever possible, the biggest savings came by encapsulating
Orion’s service module, which houses the vehicle’s vital systems, with a
shroud-like shell rather than align it with the exterior of its Ares 1 booster.

“Basically,
it’s a lot more like a payload shroud on an expendable launch vehicle,”
Hatfield said, adding that the service module’s exterior shell is now designed
to peel off during launch at about the same time as Orion’s emergency
rocket-laden escape tower. “We end up with more efficient payload mass to orbit
because we can get rid of that extra mass on the way to orbit.”

Construction
will soon begin on a boilerplate Orion capsule, a bare bones
prototype designed for launch abort system tests, at NASA’s Langley center as Lockheed engineers assemble to the first rocket motors for the
spacecraft’s escape tower, Hatfield said. The Orion boilerplate and escape
tower are expected to undergo their first field trials next fall at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range, he added.

This week, NASA also announced a five-year, $63
million plan to perform a series of thermal, electromagnetic and sound and
mechanical vibration tests for the Orion spacecraft at Plum Brook Station in
the agency’s Ohio-based Glenn Research Center.

Booster
steps

While work
continues on the Orion capsule, a separate team of engineers is tackling the
spacecraft’s two-stage Ares I and its heavy-lift counterpart the Ares V, both
of which are slated to launch initially from NASA’s Pad 39B site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Ares I
rocket is designed to use a five-segment version of the four-segment shuttle solid
rocket booster (SRB) and a liquid propellant-fueled upper stage to ferry new
crews to the International
Space Station (ISS) or onwards to the Moon.
Proposals for the booster’s upper stage are due by April 13, and NASA officials
expect to make their choice in August.

The Ares V
is expected to haul heavy cargo, such as future lunar landers
and rocket stages to send Orion crews towards the Moon, using two evolved
rocket boosters and a core stage that draws on NASA’s shuttle and Saturn V
expertise.

Several
wind tunnel and computer modeling studies are underway to determine how Ares I
and V boosters will behave during launch and control their roll rates, NASA
officials have said. Ares V engineers have also staged a series of test firings
for the booster’s RS-68 rocket
engines, five of which will form the core of the heavy-lift rocket’s power
plant [image].

“When you
look back on it, it is absolutely amazing the progress we’ve made in a pretty
short amount of time,” Hatfield said. “Hardware’s going to start appearing over
the next couple to a few months.”

  • VIDEO:
    NASA’s Orion Scale Model Drop Tests
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