“We just shipped the primary pressure vessel down to Kennedy
Space Center, where the spacecraft will be assembled,” explains
Kearney. “All the major components that will be assembled onto
the spacecraft are set to show up this spring.”
By the time the Constellation program was cancelled in 2010,
NASA had already spent $5 billion on developing Orion, and
Lockheed Martin (the prime contractor for the spacecraft) had been
working on the project for about six years.
However, in May 2011, NASA announced that the Orion
spacecraft would be “repurposed” to develop and construct the
Lockheed Martin is still responsible for the overall integration of
the spacecraft, but the aerospace company also has an industry
team, which includes major subcontractors Aerojet Rocketdyne,
United Technologies Aerospace Systems, and Honeywell, as well
as minor subcontractors in 45 states nationwide.
“Orion is made up of three major systems,” says Kearney. “We
have the launch abort system, which can actually pull the crew
module away from the rocket if we find ourselves in trouble with
the rocket either on the launch pad or on the way up.
“Then we have the crew module, which is what most people
recognize based on Apollo, which actually lands with the crew.
And finally, we have the service module, a cylindrical piece that is
staged underneath the crew module, and it actually flies with us
for the majority of the mission. That service module is where all
Because Orion is designed to be a deep space exploration
vehicle, mass is more critically important to the spacecraft’s
design than if it were just going out into low Earth orbit.
“The farther you’re going, the more mass you have to push,
and the more critical mass becomes,” explains Kearney. “So we
have to do a lot of systems analysis up front based on mission
objectives, such as where we’re going and how long we’re going
to be there.”
The spacecraft is being designed for four crewed 21-day
missions, so NASA will have to size all the components of
the mission to meet that criteria, including oxygen tanks,
consumables, nitrogen, and propulsion systems.
LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE
Although EFT-1 was largely a success, the Orion team did
discover some areas for improvement on the spacecraft.
“I would say that one of the biggest challenges so far, through
EFT-1 and EM-1 both, is the heat shield,” says Kearney. “Orion
has the largest heat shield ever built. It’s about 15-meters in
diameter, and being a deep space vehicle, it will have an entry
speed well beyond anything you’d see coming in from low Earth
During EFT-1, Orion came close to 17,000 mph upon re-entry
into Earth’s atmosphere, and it will be traveling at more than
20,000 mph during a Mars or lunar return.
For the first test flight, engineers at Colorado-based Lockheed
Martin designed the heat shield with a titanium skeleton and
carbon fiber skin, which was then shipped to Textron Defense
Systems in Massachusetts for installation of a fiberglass phenolic
Textron technicians filled the cells with an ablative material
called Avcoat, using a special dispensing gun. The material is
designed to protect the vehicle from return temperatures around
“Retaining the thermal capability while making [the heat shield]
as light as possible has been challenging,” remarks Kearney. “We
also went through a major architecture change between the flight
test a year ago and the one we’re coming up on [in 2018].”
The heat shield used during EFT-1 was a monolithic design,
which has now been converted to a block architecture for EM-1.
The first test flight produced some cracking at the base of the
heat shield, which mostly had to do with the stress that it was
under while attached to the rest of the vehicle.
The block architecture will not only eliminate some of the stress
cracking, but the life-cycle cost will also be less compared to the
IMPROVING UPON APOLLO
Despite the fact that the Apollo missions had much larger
budgets than today’s spaceflight programs, NASA currently has
the benefit of advanced computer modeling.
“We model nearly everything, from the electronics to fluid
systems and mechanical systems,” says Kearney. “And we anchor
those models primarily on ground based testing so we can get
confidence in [them].”
Due to the modeling and assessments from the first test flight,
the Orion MPCV will be considerably lighter during EM-1 than it
was during its maiden voyage. The weight loss is the result of a
reduction in the number of the pressure vessel’s cone panels and
welds, in addition to a loss of 1,200 pounds from Orion’s thermal
protection system. Once completed, the crew module will be
about 4,000 pounds lighter than it was during EFT-1.
The test flights, reengineering, and upgrades will ultimately lead
to Orion’s 2021 crewed mission. Although the exact destination
is not yet planned, the spacecraft will take humans farther than
they have every gone before, whether it be an asteroid mission, a
distant retrograde lunar orbit mission, or eventually Mars.
“We look back at the Apollo missions from the 1960s and
70s, and it was the next big step,” says Kearney. “I hope Orion
and SLS are the next big steps in human exploration beyond low
Earth orbit. The vehicle will be able to go farther and stay longer
than we’ve ever been able to go before, and that really is the next
step to be able to go to Mars.”
NASA’s Orion spacecraft awaits recovery by the U.S. Navy after completing EFT-1.
Image credit: U.S. Navy