KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (NASA PR) — Engineers at Kennedy Space Center in Florida recently conducted a series of pressure tests of the Orion pressure vessel. Orion is the NASA spacecraft that will send astronauts to deep space destinations, including on the journey to Mars. The tests confirmed that the weld points of the underlying structure will contain and protect astronauts during the launch, in-space, re-entry and landing phases on the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), when the spacecraft performs its first uncrewed test flight atop the Space Launch System rocket.
The Orion pressure vessel contains the atmosphere that a crew would breathe during a mission. It also will provide living and working space for the crew, and withstand the loads and forces experienced during launch and landing.
In late April, Orion was lifted by crane from its assembly and tooling stand and moved to a test stand inside the proof pressure cell. The assembly and tooling stand is called the birdcage because it closely resembles a birdcage, but on a much larger scale.
To prepare for the test, technicians attached hundreds of strain gauges to the interior and exterior surfaces of the vehicle. The strain gauges were attached to provide real time data to the analysts monitoring the changes during the pressurization. The analysts were located in the control room next to the pressure cell. The large doors were closed and sealed and Orion was pressurized to over the maximum pressure it is expected to encounter on orbit.
Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the Orion crew module, ran the test at incremental steps over two days to reach the maximum pressure. During each step, the team pressurized the chamber and then evaluated the data to identify changes for the next test parameter. The results revealed the workmanship of the crew module pressure vessel welds and how the welds reacted to the stresses from the pressurization.
“We are very pleased with the performance of the spacecraft during proof pressure testing,” said Scott Wilson, NASA manager of production operations for the Orion Program. “The successful completion of this test represents another major step forward in our march toward completing the EM-1 spacecraft, and ultimately, our crewed missions to deep space.”
“It gives the team a lot of pride to see Orion coming together for EM-1,” said Ed Stanton, a systems engineer for Orion Production Operations in the Ground Systems Development and Operations Program.
Orion was tested inside the proof pressure cell in the high bay of the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building. After being moved back to the birdcage assembly stand, technicians will begin the intricate work of attaching hundreds of brackets to the vessel’s exterior to hold the tubing for the vehicle’s hydraulics and other systems.
Future tests include a launch simulation and power on. Orion also will be sent to NASA Glenn Research Center’s Plum Brook Station facility in Sandusky, Ohio, for acoustics and vibration tests. The uncrewed Orion will be outfitted with most of the systems needed for a crewed mission.
NASA’s Space Launch System rocket with the Orion spacecraft atop will roar into space from Kennedy’s Launch Pad 39B. EM-1 will send Orion on a path thousands of miles beyond the moon over a course of three weeks, farther into space than human spaceflight has ever travelled before. The spacecraft will return to Earth and safely splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. This mission will advance and validate capabilities required for human exploration of Mars.