Orion's December Test Flight "Truly a Commercial Endeavor"

Orion's December Test Flight "Truly a Commercial Endeavor"

A test flight of the Orion spacecraft under development to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit is on track for launch on December 4.  The Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) is “truly a commercial endeavor” a NASA official pointed out at a briefing today (November 6) that also included representatives of Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance (ULA).

The test version of the spacecraft will make two orbits of the Earth primarily to test heat shield technologies, though a number of other in-flight and recovery operations will be tested as well.

NASA’s Orion program manager, Mark Geyer, said the test will cost $370 million for the ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket and hardware (such as the Service Module) that will not be used again.  The cost does not include the Orion capsule since it will be reused.  When asked what the cost would be if the capsule was included, Geyer replied that NASA is still formulating the total cost of the Orion program and even when it is released (after the Key Decision Point-C or KDP-C review), the cost of this one capsule will not separately identified.  This capsule is part of the design, development, test and engineering (DDT&E) effort to get Orion to the first crewed flight, Geyer explained, and a “fraction of the total” cost to get to that point.

Launch is scheduled for 7:05 am ET on December 4 from Launch Complex 37 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL (adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center).   It will land about 4.5 hours later in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California.  The launch window is 2 hours and 40 minutes, driven by the need for good lighting conditions during liftoff to obtain imagery of a number of separation events during ascent as well as at the end of the mission for recovery operations in the Pacific.  December 5 and 6 are backup days.

NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Bill Hill stressed that EFT-1 is “truly a commercial endeavor.”  NASA contracted with Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin for the resulting data only.  Lockheed Martin is in charge of the mission, which is licensed by the FAA.  ULA has the launch license, and Lockheed Martin has the reentry license.

When asked who has the go/no-go responsibilities, since it is a commercial, not NASA, mission, NASA’s Geyer laid out the structure.   For the launch, ULA makes the go/no-go decision.  Once Orion is in orbit, NASA’s Orion flight director Mike Sarafin is in charge. There are flight rules and procedures and if something goes outside those rules, the issue would be taken to the Mission Management Team (MMT).  The MMT is chaired by Lockheed Martin Mission Director Brian Austin, but NASA is a member of the MMT and discussions would be held, a consensus reached, and the decision forwarded to Sarafin for implementation.

In its two orbits of the Earth, the Orion test capsule will reach an apogee of 3,600 miles, 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS), and reenter Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour.  No humans have ventured beyond the ISS orbit since the final Apollo mission to the Moon in 1972.   When asked how Orion compares with Apollo in terms of heat shield requirements, Geyer said the biggest difference is that Orion is much larger than Apollo – built for four people instead of three.  The Orion heat shield is 5 meters (16.4 feet) in diameter compared to 3.7 meters (12.1 feet) for Apollo, he explained, adding that Orion’s heat shield also is made of different materials since some of the Apollo materials were carcinogenic.

This Orion test capsule is not outfitted to carry people.  The next Orion flight (Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1), on the first Space Launch System (SLS) test in 2017, also will not carry a crew.  The first crewed Orion is scheduled for 2021 on EM-2.  Hill said NASA hopes to fly one Orion per year after EM-2 if budgets permit with the goal of sequentially buying down risk to enable human trips to Mars.  One of those flights will be the Asteroid Redirect Mission, though he was not specific about which one.   Orion can support four people for 21 days.  For longer flights, a habitation module will be needed and a funding wedge needs to be created to develop that hardware, Hill said.

A major theme echoed by the speakers on today’s panel was that spaceflight is “hard” as last week’s Antares and SpaceShipTwo accidents demonstrated.   Hill stressed, however, that there is no commonality between any of the systems involved in those accidents and the EFT-1 mission.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article said that Orion’s apogee would be 3,600 kilometers, but it is 3,600 miles.

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