Five Things We’ll Learn from Orion’s First Flight Test

This computer-generated art depicts Orion's heat shield protecting the crew module as it enters the Earth's atmosphere. (Credit: NASA)
This computer-generated art depicts Orion’s heat shield protecting the crew module as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — All the superlatives associated with Orion’s first mission this year – farthest a spacecraft for humans has gone in 40 years, largest heat shield, safest vehicle ever built – can be dazzling, no doubt. But the reason engineers are chomping at the bit for Orion’s first mission is the promise of crucial flight test data that can be applied to the design for future missions.  Orion only has two flight test opportunities before astronauts climb aboard for the first crewed mission in 2021 – so gleaning the maximum information possible from Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 in December (and later, Exploration Mission-1 in 2017) is of the highest priority. Here are the top five things the engineers will be paying attention to:

1. Launch Abort System Separation – The launch abort system (LAS) is a key reason that Orion is intended to become the safest spacecraft ever built. In an emergency it could activate to pull the crew module and the astronauts it will carry away from the launch pad and the rocket in milliseconds. Hopefully it’s never needed, and since no crew will fly on EFT-1 the rescue system won’t be active.

This computer-generated art shows the launch abort system still attached and the jettison of the service module fairing panels. (Credit: NASA)
This computer-generated art shows the launch abort system still attached and the jettison of the service module fairing panels. (Credit: NASA)

But even when a launch goes perfectly, the 904-pound LAS jettison motor has to perform flawlessly. If it doesn’t get rid of the LAS 6 minutes and 20 seconds into the mission, there will be no landing – the LAS protects the crew module during ascent, but to do so, it blocks the parachutes that allow Orion to safely splashdown.

The Launch Abort System separation is just the first of 17 separations or jettisons that have to happen exactly as planned for the mission to be successful.

2. Parachute Deployment – For EFT-1, Orion will travel 3,600 miles above the Earth so that when it performs its deorbit burn, it will come screaming back into the Earth’s atmosphere at almost 20,000 miles per hour. Before it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean, it needs to slow down to 1/1000th of its entry speed – a relatively gentle 20 miles per hour.

A test version of NASA’s Orion spacecraft descends under its three main parachutes above the U.S. Army Proving Ground in Arizona in the agency’s most difficult test of the parachutes system’s performance. (Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak)
A test version of NASA’s Orion spacecraft descends under its three main parachutes above the U.S. Army Proving Ground in Arizona in the agency’s most difficult test of the parachutes system’s performance. (Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak)

Earth’s atmosphere does its part to put on the brakes, but to make landing survivable, Orion relies on its parachute system – primarily two drogue parachutes and three massive mains that together would cover almost an entire football field. They’ve been tested on Earth; test versions of Orion have been dropped from airplanes with a multitude of failure scenarios programmed into the parachute deployment sequence in an effort to make sure that every possibly problem is accounted for.

But the sheer number of possible problems to be tested indicates how complicated the system is – each parachute must deploy at the exact right time, open to the exact right percentages in the exact right stages, and be cut away exactly as planned. And no test on Earth can exactly simulate what the spacecraft will really experience on its return from space.

3. Heat Shield Protection – Before the parachutes even get a chance to deploy, Orion has to make it safely through Earth’s atmosphere. The reason that Orion is traveling so far and coming back in so fast is to give the heat shield a good workout – the idea is to get as close as possible to the temperatures Orion would experience during a return from Mars. At the speed it will be traveling, the temperature should reach almost 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At that same temperature, a nuclear reactor would melt down.

Standing between the crew module and all that heat is no more than 1.6 inches of Avcoat, a material that’s designed to burn away rather than transfer the temperatures back to Orion. Some 20 percent of the Avcoat will erode during the spacecraft’s journey back to Earth, and although it’s not the first time the materials has been used for this purpose, at 16.5 feet wide, Orion’s heat shield is the largest ever built. Technicians filled with Avcoat each of the 320,000 honeycomb cells that make up the shield’s structure by hand, then machined them to the precise fractions of inches called for by the design. Getting it exactly right is all that will get Orion through one of the most dynamic periods of its mission.

4. Radiation Levels – Traveling 15 times farther into space than the International Space Station will take Orion beyond the radiation protection offered by Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. In fact, the majority of EFT-1 will take place inside the Van Allen Belts, clouds of heavy radiation that surround Earth. No spacecraft built for humans has passed through the Van Allen Belts since the Apollo missions, and even those only passed through the belts – they didn’t linger.

Future crews don’t plan to spend more time than necessary inside the Van Allen Belts, either, but long missions to deep space will expose them to more radiation than astronauts have ever dealt with before. EFT-1’s extended stay in the Van Allen Belts offers a unique opportunity to see how Orion’s shielding will hold up to it. Sensors will record the peak radiation seen during the flight, as well as radiation levels throughout the flight, which can be mapped back to geographic hot spots.

5. Computer Function – Orion’s computer is the first of its kind to be flown in space. It can process 480 million instructions per second. That’s 25 times faster than the International Space Station’s computers, 400 times faster than the space shuttle’s computers and 4,000 times faster than Apollo’s.

But to operate in space, it has to be able to handle extreme heat and cold, heavy radiation and the intense vibrations of launches, aborts and landings. And it has to operate through all of that without a single mistake. Just restarting the computer would take 15 seconds; and while that might sound lightning fast compared to your PC, you can cover a lot of ground in 15 seconds when you’re strapped to a rocket.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Gotta laugh at this. Lessons learned eh? Safest vehicle? Superlatives? Pleeeze? Common Doug, expected better from you than this rubbish.
    1. Launch abort system separation. Safest ever. Someone please explain to me what makes this system safer than CST-100 or Dragon V2.
    2. Parachute deployment – I believe the final vehicle is still overweight so they are not fully testing their parachutes to final design weight.
    3. Heat shield protection – half star here mainly because they already had an example of a heatshield that could withstand BEO re-entry with the Stardust vehicle and I believe that SpaceX decided to go with that type of heatshield in their Pica-X variant.
    4. Radiation levels. You don’t need to send another spacecraft out to test this. There’s already been plenty of work done on the way to Mars as an example and you there’s nothing remotely new in the tin-can construction regarding radiation protection.
    5. Computer function – well shucks, there’s been RAD-hardened computer chips around for a long time. They’re somewhat behind the newer chips and cost zillions to produce due mainly to the limited markets but speed doesn’t count one way or the other. No mention of redundancy either which is the path taken by SpaceX and they seem to have had good success with it. So what exactly are they trying to prove here.
    This just seems so much like spin. There’s nothing new or even interesting in this test. Guess they reckon any publicity is good publicity so long as they keep the cost of the vehicle out of view. How much has it cost by the way?
    Cheers.

  • Jonathan A. Goff

    Doug,
    I think the heat shield section is somewhat dishonest. By definition if you’re in a highly-elliptical earth orbit like this, you’re talking about a lower velocity orbit than even one going to the Moon and back. Avcoat was selected back when Orion was a lunar-focused vehicle, but it isn’t believed capable of coming back from Mars, which typically requires a significantly higher speed (since it’s coming in hyperbolic). I think this one will have a return speed up around 10km/s, while lunar is up around 11km/s, and a Mars return is typically over 12km/s (sorry I have actual numbers somewhere, but this is a quick comment). Reentry heating goes with the cube of velocity, so this is not even close to the velocities they’d see on a Mars mission (not even 60% the heating rate), and I don’t think they actually believe they can get to a typical Mars reentry with Avcoat. So this whole section is misleading.

    From the style I got the feeling that you were echoing comments from a NASA person, in which case it’s them being misleading, but it’s still inaccurate.

    The heat shield testing may tell them how far they can push the technology, but I don’t think (from my conversations with people in this area) that any of them really expect the existing Orion heat shield to be Mars-return applicable as-is.

    ~Jon

  • Kapitalist

    17 separations or jettisons? Is this necessary, what are they all for? Sounds too complex for safety. On the other hand, I read that a company has delivered 100 unfoldable solar panels to satellites without a single malfunction. And thousands of explosive bolts have all successfully been used in space. It’s easy to overemphasize the risks of the visible operations.

    But parachutes make me nervous. Strings and canvas, weather dependence, and Orion’s parachute will be reusable. This weekend a NASA parachute failed to unfold fully in the LDSD test. The (aspired) rocket powered landing of the Dragon seems superior in terms of reliability, flexibility, redundancy and simplicity.

    Why not develop a minimally sized ascent and reentry capsule for taking crews to and from LEO (and LMO)? Just a taxi to dock with another spacecraft or space station. Crew would only spend a few hours in it so they could wear space suites as a backup for the life support system. A small capsule is both easier to slow down and can enter an atmosphere at higher speed. It could be launched by a smaller well tested rocket like Soyus, Atlas V, Ariane 5.

    Flight through the atmosphere is very different from flight in space, so I think one should have a specialized vehicle for that purpose. No one has died in space, only in the atmosphere. One vehicle for both modes reminds me of flying boats, it never became a success.

  • Paul451

    It’s labelled “NASA PR” on the first line. Doug often runs press releases, or at least highlights, unaltered. If he wants to add commentary or criticism he puts it in a clearly separate post-script.

  • therealdmt

    “…Orion is intended to become the safest spacecraft ever built.”

    “But even when a launch goes perfectly, the 904-pound LAS jettison motor has to perform flawlessly. If it doesn’t get rid of the LAS 6 minutes and 20 seconds into the mission, there will be no landing – the LAS protects the crew module during ascent, but to do so, it blocks the parachutes that allow Orion to safely splashdown.
    The Launch Abort System separation is just the first of 17 separations or jettisons that have to happen exactly as planned for the mission to be successful.”

    Hmm.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    “…Why not develop a minimally sized ascent and reentry capsule for taking crews to and from LEO (and LMO)?…”

    What you are describing is otherwise known as the Dragon V2!

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Yep, I saw this a while back, and the only thing that stuck in my mind was:
    “The Launch Abort System separation is just the first of 17 separations or jettisons that have to happen exactly as planned for the mission to be successful.”

    Seems to me that if this were true, then there is something fundamentally wrong with the design. SEVENTEEN !!!!!!!

    Launch separation: First stage, upper stage

    Re-entry: service/propulsion module
    Any more than that, then back to the drawing board and re-work the design.

    SEVENTEEN !!!!

    Orion $10+ billion
    OR
    ATV+Dragon. You need to detach the Dragon after launch and turn it around to re-dock (ala Apollo or two launches and orbit rendezvous), but otherwise it’s a far more capable, flexible and cheaper solution than Orion.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Orion isn’t designed nor intended for Mars return. It’s only designed and intended for 2-3 weeks lunar flyby or NEO. It is not designed as a “deep space” vehicle, such as for Mars.

  • Kapitalist

    The Dragon is impressive, but I think that a crewed launch and reentry capsule could be even smaller. The crew could be stacked on top of each other to get a smaller surface during reentry and thus a smaller heat shield and lower mass. But there are economies of scope and scale opposed to the economy of specialization, the advantages of having a standard multi purpose vehicle. The Red Dragon version for example. I love it!

    My impression is that Orion is so large that its landing gets problematic, with a large heat shield, parachutes and sea landing. Seems riskier and bad for reusability. Having the rocket power to control the spacecraft in the atmosphere, for launch abort escape and for precision landing, is simply much better. I think a minimal launch and reentry vehicle which docks with an expandable Bigelow type module in LEO would optimize for both atmosphere and space. Some people don’t like docking in LEO, but AFAIK no docking attempt has ever failed in any serious way, although there’s been some delays.

  • Hug Doug

    the Dragon V2 does, in fact, stack its crew. there are 4 on the top row and 3 on the bottom row.

    http://cloudfront-assets.reason.com/assets/mc/_external/2014_05/dragon.jpg

    this arrangement is dictated by the shape of the pressure vessel.

    http://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?action=dlattach;topic=29182.0;attach=419439;image

  • Hug Doug

    i can’t find a list of all 17 separations or jettisons, so let me try and make a list off the top of my head:

    1 LAS tower jettison.

    i’m not sure if that includes the boost protective cover or not. if not, then

    1 boost protective cover separation.

    1 separation from the 2nd stage of the Delta IV Heavy.

    3 Service Module fairings separation.

    1 separation from the Service Module.

    1 forward bay cover jettison.

    that’s 8 i can think of off the top of my head. can anyone help with the remaining 9?

    do you think they are including the staging of the Delta IV Heavy in the total?

  • Hug Doug

    well, i can’t find a list of all 17 separations or jettisons, so let me try and make a list off the top of my head:

    1 LAS tower jettison.

    i’m not sure if that includes the boost protective cover or not. if not, then

    1 boost protective cover separation.

    1 separation from the 2nd stage of the Delta IV Heavy.

    3 Service Module fairings separation.

    1 separation from the Service Module.

    1 forward bay cover jettison.

    that’s 8 i can think of off the top of my head. can anyone help with the remaining 9?

    do you think they are including the staging of the Delta IV Heavy in the total?

  • Hug Doug

    i can’t find a list of all 17 separations or jettisons, so let me try and make a list off the top of my head:

    1 LAS tower jettison.

    i’m not sure if that includes the boost protective cover or not. if not, then

    1 boost protective cover separation.

    1 separation from the 2nd stage of the Delta IV Heavy.

    3 Service Module fairings separation.

    1 separation from the Service Module.

    1 forward bay cover jettison.

    so that’s 8 i can think of off the top of my head. can anyone help with the remaining 9?

    do you think they are including the staging of the Delta IV Heavy in the total?

  • Douglas Messier

    This is a NASA press release. It’s not my writing.

  • Douglas Messier

    No my writing. Not Penny’s boat.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    There’s half a billion dollars gets separated to roll out to the pad, then another half billion gets separated to launch on a delta heavy and another half a billion gets separated by using 27 navy vessels to recover a single capsule from the ocean. Actually, I’m joking…sort of.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I too, and many others, favour LEO docked mission stacks. Strangely though SpaceX (Elon) seems to favour surface to surface architectures; at least in the sort term. I presume I must be missing some issue with LEO docking that is somehow riskier than building a monster rocket. If you want to lift a large single bit of kit that cannot be easily be built/assembled in orbit then fair enough, a big rocket is a must. The only thing I can think is that Earth departure orbits are more difficult for rendezvous, rather than the docking itself.

  • Jonathan A. Goff

    Doug,
    Makes sense. I didn’t see the NASA PR line when I read it last night, but it did feel more like a reprint of a press release, not like something you would write.

    ~Jon

  • Jonathan A. Goff

    Exactly. The problem is that while it isn’t designed for deep-space missions, that’s exactly what NASA and Congress are trying to market it as.

  • larryj8

    Here are a few others.
    Separation of the two outer cores from the Delta IV Heavy (does that count as one or two?)
    Staging when remaining core runs out of fuel
    LAS separation
    Separation of Orion SM from D-IV H upper stage
    And let’s not forget:
    Separation of taxpayers from vast amounts of their money
    Separation of NASA from reality…

  • windbourne

    As I read this, I really love the rider. Fewer and simpler systems.

  • Kapitalist

    If the diameter was 2.5 meters instead of 3.5 meters the surface area to the atmosphere would be halved. Which is already half of the Orion diameter. It should still be possible to put two humans in beds/seats side on side and then another pair or more in seats above them. And another two if you really need six of them on the same mission.

  • Kapitalist

    “3 Service Module fairings separation.
    1 separation from the Service Module.
    1 forward bay cover jettison.”

    That’s the kind of stuff I have little to no understanding of. Will Orion be launched with covers and tripple fairings? I don’t have a well specified question here, I just represent some surprised part of the interested public who’s worried about rumours that SLS+Orion might never happen because of complexity, costs and lack of missions.

  • Hug Doug

    the Service Module has one 3-piece fairing.

    http://www.parabolicarc.com/2013/11/11/orion-fairing-test-proves-successful/orion-sm-fairing-sep-test-nov2013/

    it was originally a 2 piece fairing, but it was made into 3 because that was discovered to save weight.

    the “forward bay cover” is on the very tip of Orion. this cover protects the parachutes while Orion is in space. this cover must be jettisoned before the parachutes can deploy.

    http://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/multimedia/featured_photos/ED08-0090-454.html

  • Kapitalist

    Spacious images like these must have something to do with frog lenses or Photoshop or both. It looks as if my girlfriend could park my car in there, and I don’t believe it. She never ran over seven at a time.

  • windbourne

    I did not realize that. I thought it was designed for such.
    What is bothersome is that we have spent more than 5b on just orion.
    To go to mars will probably involve another 5b

  • Hug Doug
  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I think it’s $6 billion spent so far, will be at least $10 billion by the time it first goes on SLS, and $1+ billion for each additional flight.

  • Tonya

    Worse, they’ll probably make them haul it all the way to Mars and back, attached to whatever hab NASA eventually propose.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Apologies Doug, should’ve guessed.
    Cheers

  • Zed_WEASEL

    “…The Dragon is impressive, but I think that a crewed launch and reentry capsule could be even smaller. …”

    Pointless. Since it will just duplicate the Dragon’ capabilities and cost. Your capsule only make sense if it is a supplement system to the Orion. As it is, the Dragon is in competition with the Orion for BLEO missions IMO.

    The Orion is design for Moon sortie missions, anywhere beyond that you need a hab module of some type. Of course the same hab module will work with the Dragon.

  • Kapitalist

    Yes, a hab module to dock with in LEO. You take the car or the train to the airport. You don’t try to build a thing which can fly you from your doorstep to another continent. You use different vehicles for different parts of the journey. I’m afraid that orion is trying to do too much in one package. NASA will certainly make it work safely, but the concept, I think, requires high costs.

    Dragon is also too large to be optimal. Why put 7 humans in space at all? However, it is so clever and aims at Mars, that I think that the economy of that whole ambition has been well calculated into the compromize which is the Dragon. But as a transport to/from LEO or LMO even the Dragon is oversize.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Yeah, I never looked at those before but I do now. I’ve apologised to Doug.
    Cheers.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Because, IIRC, the ISS can accommodate up to 7 crew and Dragon is or was going to serve as a lifeboat as well. All the CC contender’s vehicles are sized for 7 crew.
    Cheers.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Nope. Dragon is not competition for Orion. It’s capabilities far exceed Orion and therefore it’s not a competition.

    For example, Dragon V2 will be able to land propulsively on an moon or planetary body such as Mars. It could also use it’s Draco thrusters (weak as they are) to move to a grappling position for an asteroid. The vehicle is also designed for at least 6 months docked to the ISS as a lifeboat. Not sure what it’s on-orbit capabilities are however it boasts solar panels on it’s SM so should be quite significant.

    Dragon cargo is designed for over a year in space (ie. DragonLab missions).

    Last time I checked, Orion were single use only and used parachutes which requires a somewhat substantial atmosphere. TTBOMK both Moon and Mars currently lack an atmosphere. In addition, the vehicle is limited to 4 crew and some 21 days in orbit.

    Bolden has consistently stated that the Orion is BEO only, not backup to CC. DragonCargo and DragonV2 are both initially designed to meet ISS needs. Eventually, EM wants only one craft for both jobs.

    Cheers.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Yep, me too. As I’ve stated above, no competition.
    Cheers.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    …”anywhere beyond that you need a hab module of some type”

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    You won’t get much of a cost saving, mass reduction or improved re-entry safety from shrinking Dragon even further.

    “Why put 7 humans in space at all?”

    I want, you want, Elon wants, and everybody else who isn’t getting rich at the expense of the rest of humanity wants, a space faring future where there are thousands of human launches every year. From this perspective large surface-to-LEO shuttle-bus/taxi/capsules make sense and will be an absolute necessity in reducing the per person ticket price to LEO.

  • Kapitalist

    The argument for heavy lift single launch missions which I come across, is logistical. A sum of diffuse practical details. Docking in LEO requires extra fuel and mass for docking equipment and it depends on successful timing, while launches often are delayed for technical or weather reasons.

    Maybe more important than the technology and economics of it, I think is the political aspect. Once you have a heavy lift they will make up something to use it for, to motivate the sunk cost. We haven’t gone anywhere since we had Saturn V. No matter how expensive and oldfashioned the SLS is, it might actually move people into space.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Nice post mate. No doubt a LEO docked mission stack is less mass efficient and there are more individual elements, so more things to go wrong. But each egg in its own small cheap basket still seems to make more sense than all your eggs in one big super-expensive basket.

    “No matter how expensive and oldfashioned the SLS is, it might actually move people into space.”
    I appreciate your positive thinking, but I am too heavily burdened by cynicism to follow suit. Presumably BFR will aim to be reusable (first stage(s) at least) thus addressing the bulk of the cost issue of SHLV. SLS on the other hand is purposely designed to cost more than it should, both to develop and, more importantly, to launch. A failing that is likely to be its downfall when time comes to find extra budget to pay for actual mission hardware.

  • richard_schumacher

    The failure of the LDSD test parachute reminds us that large ‘chutes are not reliable. Be prepared for downselection of one or both of the Orion and CST-100 capsules.

  • Kapitalist

    Yeah, the political and special interest middle men who handle this deal have the goal to maximize costs. Results are unimportant to them. Be it a rocket or an X. The important thing to the management is to spend as much as possible of other peoples money. And put a fraction of it in their own pockets.

    I think that the choice between multiple smaller launches and a single large launch are about equally good concepts when everything is added up. We can start building space colonies either way.

  • Douglas Messier

    No problem. It happens.

  • Everett Williams

    Nonsense, A means of exit of any kind requires most of the weight of a docking port and rendezvous requires very little extra fuel with modern orbit calculations. If we build a modular system, with a refueling facility, the efficiency of being able to boost mission hardware without fuel on board far exceeds any other consideration. It reduces the strength requirements of the mission hardware because the hardware does not have to handle boost into orbit while loaded with fuel that usually will far outweigh the rest of the mission. That way, the mission hardware can be much more capable for the same boost capacity. There is no need for the SLS or the Orion under any reasonable scenario for our future in space.

    As for the mission having fewer elements, Orion has a service module that requires access for which the most efficient mode is separation and docking, making the rest of the argument into nonsense. And the LAS separation not only inserts risk during what already is the riskiest part of any mission, but the LAS is extra weight that not only reduces flexibility, but again wipes out any possible savings from not having a docking port. Since the Orion is required to act as a backup system for ISS access, it does have a docking port.