It has been three and a half years since the Orion spacecraft was first launched into space in December 2014 and made a successful shakeout flight. But now NASA’s program, aimed at building a large, deep space capsule that can send astronauts to and from lunar orbit, is finally getting underway again toward a series of test flights.
In less than a year, a boilerplate model of the Orion spacecraft will be dropped 55 seconds after its rocket lifts off to test the vehicle’s launch abort system. If that goes well, the Orion spacecraft will be sent into orbit around the moon for more than a week for a shakedown cruise about a year later. Finally, as early as June 2022, two to four astronauts will fly aboard Orion into orbit around the moon, sending humans into space for the first time since 1972.
This isn’t exactly a fast cadence of flights, but three missions in four years would be a remarkable increase over the vehicle’s flight speed so far — one in 13 years. “Our destiny is to explore, so you want to put your tests behind you and get people on the spacecraft, and start that exploration,” Annette Hasbrook, an assistant manager for the Orion program in Houston, told Ars.
A few weeks ago, Johnson Space Center invited reporters to view the Orion spacecraft that will make the Ascent Abort-2 test flight in April. The craft was built at NASA’s Langley Research Center and technicians in Houston are equipping the crew module with 200 sensors. While there won’t be a Starman or Mannequin Skywalker inside — there won’t even be any seats — the vehicle will have sensors near where astronauts will sit to determine the forces astronauts would experience during the test.
NASA plans to conduct the abort test in April 2019 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A blunt first stage booster from a Peacekeeper rocket, modified by Orbital Sciences Corporation, will lift the Orion crew module and launch the break-down system to just under 10 km, reaching Mach 1.3. At that point, under maximum dynamic pressure, the launch-abort system’s motor will fire, pulling the crew vehicle up and away from the missile in just 15 seconds.
With this one test, NASA will try to collect data for different abort scenarios, so engineers have chosen a set of goals, such as angle of attack and speed, that most determine the situations they deal with. “We couldn’t do a worst-on-worst case for one area because it wouldn’t tell us anything about another area,” said Jon Olansen, manager of the Ascent Abort Crew Module for NASA. “So we wanted to try and find a difficult region that can inform all regions.”
The agency will collect data from the test to confirm its simulations for a range of conditions in which the Space Launch System rocket goes wrong, and the launch abort system should quickly pull the spacecraft away. If everything works as intended, NASA will be ready to produce a final version of the launch-abort system for the first manned flight.
This flight, known as Exploration Mission-2, may be coming sooner than the agency’s planners had imagined. So far, the biggest hurdle between the Orion vehicle’s first space test flight (probably in 2020) and the crew’s maiden flight has been the need to refurbish a large “mobile launch tower.” This structure will support the testing and maintenance of the massive SLS rocket, move it to the launch pad and provide a platform from which it will launch.
Between the rocket’s first test flight and the second flight, NASA planned to upgrade the top stage of the SLS rocket to give it more kick at sending larger payloads deeper into the solar system. This larger and longer upper stage, known as the “Exploration Upper Stage”, requires significant modifications to the mobile launcher. The agency estimated that it would take 33 months to complete this work, causing a nearly three-year delay between SLS’s first and second flights, and consequently between Orion’s unmanned and manned deep space test flights.
However, now NASA has said it will build a second mobile launch vehicle for the more powerful version of the SLS rocket. In turn, the agency has decided to fly Orion’s first manned mission on the original SLS rocket configuration, meaning there is no longer the 33-month “bar” between the two flights.
“It’s fantastic to be able to pull that beam out and have the ability to get people into space a little earlier,” Hasbrook said.
This allowed the Orion program to bring forward the manned launch of its vehicle to June 2022, about a year earlier than previously expected. Officials at NASA headquarters have yet to set a formal launch date for Exploration Mission-2 now that the mobile launcher issue has been resolved. A decision is likely to be made this summer.
Really, it can’t come soon enough. The agency has been “developing” the Orion spacecraft in one form or another since 2005 and currently spends about $1.35 billion a year on the program regardless of when it will fly. If Orion is “America’s spacecraft,” as the agency says, it’s time for America to see it in action.