October 01, 2012
Credit: Credit: NASA
Frank Morring, Jr. Washington
NASA's Orion multipurpose crew vehicle is on a go-slow development path to free funds for near-term agency objectives, but its first full-scale flight test may send it to the Moon.
Even before that 2017 unmanned flight atop the first version of the government-owned heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), a planned 2014 flight test on a Delta IV will characterize radiation levels and cabin-seat g-loading for deep-space flight, as well as the performance of its thermal protection system (TPS) on a high-speed reentry.
NASA planners are pondering just how much data they can wring out of the vehicle's first three flights—including one with a crew planned for 2021—to begin learning how to operate in cislunar space, which is almost certain to be the first human destination beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).
“We have certain objectives that we need to accomplish from a test standpoint,” says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “We have to do certain profiles on certain things. But could we expand those potential test missions to do more?”
Possibilities include shifting Orion from one Earth-Moon Lagrangian point to another, or conducting a lunar flyaround or orbital mission. NASA's flat budget is so tight that the agency has deferred development of the service module that will carry Orion's propulsion and other systems. But with $5 billion already spent on the four-seat capsule once dubbed “Apollo on steroids,” Gerstenmaier and his colleagues are looking for some return on investment to apply against the missions beyond LEO it was developed to fly.
Lockheed Martin has been the Orion prime contractor since it was conceived as the “crew exploration vehicle” for the now-abandoned Ares I launcher under the Constellation program of deep-space human-rated vehicles. The company has built full-scale engineering articles for extensive ground testing and delivered the first flight article to Kennedy Space Center for integration and testing in preparation for the 2014 Delta IV mission.
“We're trying to solve 12 of 16 of the top risks,” says Cleon Lacefield, Lockheed Martin vice president and Orion program manager. “We're trying to do some kind of risk mitigation with those. That includes the parachutes, the landing system, the guidance and control, the flight computers, the reaction control system, the heat shield, the back-shell heat shield. Plus we're going to do the radiation [measurements] going through the Van Allen Belts, and we do have simulated mass in the seats so we can see what happens during landing.”