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Orion spacecraft ready for launch preparations

Posted: September 10, 2014

Ready for a 12-week launch campaign before liftoff at sunrise Dec. 4, NASA's first space-rated Orion crew capsule will leave its assembly hall Thursday for the next stop on its road to the launch pad to begin a twice-around-the-world test flight.

The first space-rated Orion spacecraft has been assembled and tested at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak
The milestone comes after the Lockheed Martin-built capsule spent more than two years inside Kennedy Space Center's Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building receiving its propulsion and computer systems, heat shield and a mock-up of the service module that will guide future Orion missions through space.

The space capsule is scheduled for launch Dec. 4 at 7:05 a.m. EST (1205 GMT) on top of a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket.

The liftoff is timed just after sunrise to ensure favorable optical tracking of the rocket's ascent into space, plus daylight in the spacecraft's recovery zone in the Pacific Ocean, where it will splash down about 4 hours and 25 minutes after launch, according to Robert McNamara, Lockheed Martin's mission director for Orion's Exploration Flight Test 1.

"It will launch from Pad 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and it will travel 3,600 miles beyond low Earth orbit and re-enter at approximately 20,000 mph and splash down in the Pacific Ocean where the U.S. Navy and NASA ground personnel will recover the spacecraft," said Cleon Lacefield, Lockheed Martin's former Orion program manager, who retired this summer.

Officials advertise the EFT-1 test flight as a risk-reducer for the Lockheed Martin-built Orion spacecraft, which is designed to ferry astronauts to asteroids, Mars and other destinations beyond low Earth orbit.

Working in a climate-controlled clean room, technicians installed a 16.5-foot-diameter ablative heat shield to the blunt end of the Orion spacecraft this spring. The shield will take the brunt of the high heat of the capsule's 20,000 mph re-entry, protecting the craft from temperatures up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Around the conical upper segment of the Orion crew module, workers added 970 heat-absorbing black tiles. The bellies of NASA's space shuttle orbiters each held 24,000 of the ceramic tiles.

Workers installed 970 heat-resistant tiles to the Orion crew module's back shell. The tiles are the same type as the ones used on the space shuttle. Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis
Coming back from missions to deep space, Orion vehicles will experience hotter temperatures than the space shuttle generated from friction as the capsule dives back into Earth's atmosphere.

Ground crews affixed 1,200 extra sensors to the capsule to measure vibration, acceleration, temperature, pressure and collect other data during the flight. Data from the instrumentation will help engineers refine the design of the Orion spacecraft during a critical design review next spring, officials said.

Three stops remain on the spacecraft's journey to orbit on EFT-1, a mission to demonstrate the capsule's heat shield, avionics, parachutes, and other systems NASA intends to use on future flights with astronauts on-board.

"Things like the computer system that's on this bird will be exactly the same on the next flights, except we'll add another string for redundancy," said Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion program manager.

The mission will fly without a life support system, cockpit displays, and other gear required for crewed flights. That equipment is still being designed and tested on the ground.

In a move scheduled for Thursday, technicians will roll the Orion spacecraft out of the Operations and Checkout Building for a trip to a nearby fueling facility to receive hazardous propellants and ammonia for the capsule's cooling system.

Then the craft will move to another building for workers to attach Orion's launch abort system, a needle-shaped escape tower that would whisk astronauts away from a failing booster during liftoff.

The last stop will be Cape Canaveral's Complex 37 launch pad, where cranes will hoist the Orion spacecraft on top of a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket.

ULA modified the launch pad's work platforms and added a swing arm to the facility's fixed umbilical tower to support the Orion launch. The Delta 4-Heavy launcher will be the same type of rocket used on previous flights, but the shape of the rocket's nose fairing is different with the Orion spacecraft and its pointy launch abort system.

The Orion EFT-1 test flight will launch on a Delta 4-Heavy rocket a few minutes after sunrise on Dec. 4. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
The heavy-lifter, made up of three Delta 4 first stage boosters strapped together, will loft the capsule 3,600 miles above Earth during its nearly four-and-a-half hour flight set for Dec. 4.

Powered by three hydrogen-fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A engines, the rocket will climb away from Florida's Space Coast and pitch east over the Atlantic Ocean, riding more than 2 million pounds of thrust to accelerate past the speed of sound in a little over a minute.

The rocket's two liquid-fueled boosters will shut down and jettison from the Delta 4's core stage about four minutes after liftoff, leaving the center engine to fire for another minute-and-a-half before switching off and turning over control of the flight to the launcher's upper stage.

The Delta 4's RL10B-2 engine will ignite a few seconds later, around the flight's six-minute mark. Moments later, once the rocket is out of the dense lower layers of Earth's atmosphere, aerodynamic fairings around the Orion spacecraft's dummy service module will jettison, then the capsule's abort tower will fire away from the nose of the vehicle.

The next Orion demonstration flight, likely to occur in 2018, will fly on NASA's Space Launch System, the most powerful booster ever built. The SLS will use the same type of RL10 engine flying on ULA's Delta 4 rocket, and the adapter connecting the Orion EFT-1 spacecraft to its launcher is the same design that will fly on the Space Launch System.

The Delta 4's RL10 second stage engine will fire two times on the Dec. 4 flight, first to put the Orion spacecraft into orbit a few hundred miles up. A second burn about two hours after liftoff will shape Orion's orbit to reach a peak altitude of 3,600 miles and fall back into the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.

The Orion spacecraft -- without the propulsion system that will maneuver future missions through space -- is just along for the ride on the EFT-1 mission.

The gumdrop-shaped crew module will separate from the Delta 4 upper stage and mock-up service module approximately 3 hours and 25 minutes into the mission to prepare for re-entry. The Orion capsule will encounter the first traces of Earth's atmosphere about 4 hours and 15 minutes after launch, followed a few minutes later by three-stage deployment of the craft's parachutes.

Three 116-foot-diameter main chutes will allow the crew module to gently settle into the Pacific Ocean about 4 hours and 25 minutes after launching from Cape Canaveral.

Recovery crews will be on standby to recover the capsule and transport it back to shore.

Most of the mission's $300 million cost went toward the purchase of a Delta 4-Heavy rocket from ULA, according to Geyer.

"When we talk about the cost, it's just the stuff we throw away like the service module, the launch abort system and the rocket," Geyer said.

The Orion capsule was already under construction before NASA gave the green light for the test flight in 2011. Engineers plan to refurbish the crew module once it returns to the Kennedy Space Center next year for an in-flight abort test in 2018.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.