Saturday, December 20, 2014

Orion Spacecraft Returns Home

NASA's Orion spacecraft is viewed by members of the media at the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Orion made the 8-day, 2,700 mile overland trip back to Kennedy from Naval Base San Diego in California. Analysis of date obtained during its two-orbit, four-and-a-half hour mission Dec. 5 will provide engineers detailed information on how the spacecraft fared. The Ground Systems Development and Operations Program led the recovery, offload and transportation efforts. Image Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

After traveling more than 3,600 miles above Earth and 600 miles over sea, NASA’s Orion spacecraft completed the final leg of its 2,700 mile journey by land from Naval Base San Diego, arriving home Thursday at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. The NASA Ground Systems Development and Operations team transported the Lockheed Martin built spacecraft across the country by truck, and the entire trip took eight days. “Despite travelling a bit slower than what we’re used to, Orion made pretty good time,” said Michael Hawes, Lockheed Martin vice president and Orion program manager. “Most of the team hasn’t had eyes on the spacecraft since November, when we rolled to the launch pad, so we’re excited to take a look.” The spacecraft’s cross-country return sets the stage for in-depth analysis of data obtained during Orion’s trip to space and will provide engineers detailed information on how the spacecraft fared during its two-orbit, 4.5-hour flight test, completed on Dec. 5.

“The flight itself was such a great success, but that’s only the beginning of the story,” said Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer. “Now we get to dig in and really find out if our design performed like we thought it would. This is why we flew the flight. We demonstrated on Dec. 5 that Orion is a very capable vehicle. Now we’re going to keep testing and improving as we begin building the next Orion.”

An initial inspection of the crew module turned up nothing unexpected. There were indications of some micrometeoroid orbital debris strikes on the sides of Orion, which was anticipated.

Once back to KSC, Orion’s trailer and transport fixture were brought to the Mission Operations Support Building where the accumulation of dirt and grime from the road was removed. The spacecraft will then be brought into the Launch Abort System Facility, where the team will remove the back shell panels and start post-flight assessments in early January. Engineers will perform a visual inspection of hardware such as cabling, fluid lines, propulsion systems and avionics boxes to determine how these components sustained Exploration Flight Test-1.

Once the initial inspections are completed, the spacecraft will be transported to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility for offloading of hydrazine and ammonia. In March, Lockheed Martin will provide a complete data analysis report to NASA, which will include information about the vehicle’s performance and recommendations based on the results.

Meanwhile, NASA released a video recorded during the return of Orion through Earth’s atmosphere. It provides a taste of the intense conditions the spacecraft and the astronauts it carries will endure when they return from deep space destinations on the journey to Mars.

Among the first data to be removed from Orion following its uncrewed flight test was video recorded through windows in Orion’s crew module. Although much of the video was transmitted down to Earth and shown in real time on NASA Television, it was not available in its entirety. Also, the blackout caused by the superheated plasma surrounding the vehicle as it endured the peak temperatures of its descent prevented downlink of any information at that key point. However, the cameras were able to record the view and now the public can have an up-close look at the extreme environment a spacecraft experiences as it travels back through Earth's environment from beyond low-Earth orbit.

The video begins 10 minutes before Orion's 11:29 a.m. EST splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, just as the spacecraft was beginning to experience Earth's atmosphere. Peak heating from the friction caused by the atmosphere rubbing against Orion's heat shield comes less than two minutes later, and the footage shows the plasma created by the interaction change from white to yellow to lavender to magenta as the temperature increases.

As Orion emerges safely on the other side of its trial by fire, the camera continues to record the deployment of the series of parachutes that slowed it to a safe 20 mph for landing and the final splash as Orion touched down on Earth.

While the information is being gathered from the flight test, testing also will continue on Earth. On Dec. 18, engineers dropped a test version of the Orion capsule from a C-17 aircraft 25,000 feet above U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. The latest in a series of tests designed to certify Orion’s parachute system, the test simulated a failure of one of Orion’s three main parachutes for a first-time demonstration of several modifications made to the parachute system to improve its performance.

NASA's Orion crew module, enclosed in its crew module transportation fixture and secured on a flatbed truck approaches the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Lockheed Martin
NASA's Orion crew module, enclosed in its crew module transportation fixture and secured on a flatbed truck approaches the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Panels for the pressure vessel that will form the inner structure for the next Orion crew module are in production and set to be welded together at the end of summer 2015. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency is building the test article of the Orion service module they will be supplying for Exploration Mission-1, and assembly of the launch abort system for that flight will begin in April.

The crew module will be refurbished for use in Ascent Abort-2 in 2018, a test of Orion’s launch abort system.


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