The Orion heat shield, which will protect the Orion crew module during re-entry after the spacecraft’s first uncrewed flight test with NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, arrived at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in August. It was transported to the Shuttle Landing Facility, which is managed and operated by Space Florida, aboard NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft.
The shipping container with the heat shield inside was offloaded and transported to the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building high bay where technicians uncrated and secured it on a stand to begin the work to prepare it for Orion’s next test flight, known as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).
“We are very excited the EM-1 heat shield has arrived here at the Orion factory on the first leg of a journey that will ultimately take it beyond the moon and back,” said Scott Wilson, NASA manager of production operations for the Orion Program.
The heat shield was designed by the Lockheed Martin and NASA Orion team and built at the Lockheed Martin manufacturing facility near Denver. It is 16.4 feet wide (5 meters) in diameter, making it the largest of its kind.
The titanium truss structure has a composite substrate surrounding it. The heat shield will be capable of withstanding temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees F during Orion’s re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
“Arrival of the EM-1 heat shield structure at Kennedy marks a significant milestone that gets us one step closer to achieving NASA’s ultimate goal, sending humans to Mars and returning them safely to Earth,” said Jules Schneider, Lockheed Martin Orion KSC Operations senior manager.
In the O&C, technicians will apply the Avcoat, a type of thermal protection that wears away as it heats up (a process known as ablation), to the EM-1 heat shield in a different way than was done for Orion’s 2014 flight test. Blocks of Avcoat will be bonded to the heat shield rather than filling individual honeycomb cells. The way the structure is attached to the crew module for the EM-1 heat shield has been simplified. Several different types of instrumentation also will be installed on the heat shield to gather data on heating and performance.
After the thermal protection system has been applied and inspected, engineers and technicians will put the heat shield through a thermal cycle test. The thermal cycle test ensures the thermal protection blocks are properly bonded and will perform as expected when they are exposed to the extreme temperatures during the mission. The heat shield will be attached to the Orion crew module in the summer of 2017.
During EM-1, Orion will travel farther than any spacecraft built for humans has flown before. It will travel thousands of miles past the moon and then return to Earth. During its three-week mission, engineers will monitor how Orion’s systems perform in the environment of deep space and its return to Earth.
Orion is the spacecraft that will carry astronauts to deep-space destinations as NASA prepares for its Journey to Mars. Orion will be equipped with power, communications and life support systems to sustain space travelers during their missions and return them safely to Earth.
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