The Orion crew module pressure vessel has arrived at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and is now secured in an upgraded version of a test stand called the “birdcage” inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building high bay. Orion will eventually take NASA on a journey to Mars, but first, the spacecraft is being prepared for a mission past the moon during Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).
The pressure vessel is the crew module’s underlying structure. Processing at Kennedy began Feb. 3 to prepare it for launch atop the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket from Kennedy’s Launch Pad 39B in 2018.
“The arrival of Orion is very exciting for us,” said Scott Wilson, NASA Orion production manager. “This is the first mission where the Orion spacecraft will be integrated with the large Space Launch System rocket. Orion is the vehicle that’s going to take astronauts to deep space.”
The pressure vessel arrived Feb. 1 aboard NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft from the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to Kennedy’s Shuttle Landing Facility, operated by Space Florida. It was offloaded and transported to the O&C the next day.
Before arriving at Kennedy, Orion spent several months at Michoud, where its seven large segments were welded together to form the pressure vessel. At Kennedy, the pressure vessel will be outfitted with additional components and then tested to ensure it is structurally sound.
Over the next 18 months, more than 100,000 components will arrive at the center. A team of engineers and technicians with NASA and Orion manufacturer Lockheed Martin will integrate them with the spacecraft. Orion will be outfitted with its systems and subsystems necessary for flight. The module will receive its avionics; electrical power storage and distributions systems; thermal controls; cabin pressure control; command and data handling; communications and tracking; guidance, navigation and control; reaction control system propulsion; and flight software and computers.
”At Kennedy, we are going to turn the pressure vessel into a fully operational spacecraft,” Wilson said. “We have a robust test program that is distributed across key facilities in several states. After we complete testing here, Orion will be sent to Plum Brook Station at the agency’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio for additional testing.”
Wilson said there are several months of environmental testing scheduled for the Orion spacecraft.
“We want to make sure the vehicle itself is good for its mission, which is called acceptance testing,” Wilson said. “But, the larger set of testing is what we call qualifications. We qualify our design.”
Thanks to lessons learned from the launch of Exploration Flight Test-1, the first launch of an Orion spacecraft into space in December 2014, the pressure vessel is about 500 pounds lighter and has fewer parts, according to Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion program manager.
“We learned a lot from the first flight test,” Hawes said. “Exploration Mission-1 will be a demanding, rigorous mission. We’re ready to start the work.”
About a year from now, the Orion crew module will be powered on and prepared for all of the tests that will confirm the spacecraft is ready for flight. Orion will be integrated with the European Space Agency-provided service module that will provide the main propulsion system and power. The spacecraft will be fueled and stacked atop the SLS rocket for its historic launch.
“It’s amazing the amount of dedication we have from former space shuttle workers who are now putting together our new spacecraft with the same dedication, care and skill that they used to keep our shuttles flying safely,” astronaut Stan Love said.
The main goal of the first integrated launch of the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft will be to demonstrate NASA’s new capability to launch future crewed, deep-space missions to an asteroid and a journey to Mars.
At liftoff, the SLS Block 1 rocket on EM-1 will provide about eight million pounds of thrust, greater than any other rocket in the world today and comparable to that of the Saturn V.
Orion will travel about 40,000 miles beyond the moon over the course of a three-week mission. During re-entry, Orion will travel at speeds up to 25,000 mph, withstand temperatures of 5,000 degrees F and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the San Diego coast.
“Orion and the Space Launch System will allow us to be leaders in space,” said Mark Geyer, deputy center director at Johnson Space Center in Houston. “This vehicle will go further than any of the Apollo spacecraft.”
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