Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Orion Checks Out


The recently completed Orion crew module in Kennedy Space Center's Operations & Checkout Building. Image source: NASA.

More than ten years after President George W. Bush announced his proposal for a Crew Exploration Vehicle, NASA's Orion crew capsule is finally assembled.

In his January 14, 2004 Vision for Space Exploration speech, Bush proposed:

Our second goal is to develop and test a new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, by 2008, and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014. The Crew Exploration Vehicle will be capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the Space Station after the shuttle is retired. But the main purpose of this spacecraft will be to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds. This will be the first spacecraft of its kind since the Apollo Command Module.

Orion has had a long and tortured history.


An early Lockheed Martin concept for the Crew Exploration Vehicle. Image source: Wikipedia.

As part of the Constellation program, the Orion contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin in August 2006. According to the NASA press release:

Orion will be capable of transporting four crewmembers for lunar missions and later supporting crew transfers for Mars missions. Orion could also carry up to six crew members to and from the International Space Station.

The first Orion launch with humans onboard is planned for no later than 2014, and for a human moon landing no later than 2020.

The four-year gap between the demise of Shuttle and its successor had been planned since Bush's speech. It was part of the January 28, 2004 presentation to the Senate Science Committee by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.

The August 2006 press release further documents that the current “gap” relying on Russia for International Space Station access was part of the Bush administration plan from the beginning.


A September 2006 artist's concept of the Ares I/Orion infrastructure. Image source: NASA.

Orion was intended to fly crew rotations to ISS atop Constellation's Ares I. Both systems faced challenges and delays, as documented in this April 2008 Government Accountability Office audit.

Currently, nearly every major segment of Ares I and Orion faces knowledge gaps in the development of required hardware and technology and many are being affected by uncertainty in requirements. For example, computer modeling is showing that thrust oscillation within the first stage of the Ares I could cause excessive vibration throughout the Ares I and Orion. Resolving this issue could require redesigns to both the Ares I and Orion vehicles that could ultimately impact cost, schedule, and performance. Furthermore, the addition of a fifth segment to the Ares I first stage has the potential to impact qualification efforts for the first stage and could result in costly requalification and redesign efforts. Additionally, the J-2X engine represents a new engine development effort that, both NASA and Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne recognize, is likely to experience failures during development. Addressing these failures is likely to lead to design changes that could impact the project's cost and schedule. With regard to the Orion project, there is currently no industry capability for producing a thermal protection system of the size required by the Orion. NASA has yet to develop a solution for this gap, and given the size of the vehicle and the tight development schedule, a feasible thermal protection system may not be available for initial operational capability to the space station.

Sixteen months later, the GAO issued another audit which concluded that Constellation “lacked a sound business case.”

NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case — including firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time — needed to justify moving the Constellation program forward into the implementation phase. Gaps in the business case include

  • significant technical and design challenges for the Orion and Ares I vehicles, such as limiting vibration during launch, eliminating the risk of hitting the launch tower during lift off, and reducing the mass of the Orion vehicle, represent considerable hurdles that must be overcome in order to meet safety and performance requirements; and
  • a poorly phased funding plan that runs the risk of funding shortfalls in fiscal years 2009 through 2012, resulting in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. This approach has limited NASA’s ability to mitigate technical risks early in development and precludes the orderly ramp up of workforce and developmental activities.

In response to these gaps, NASA delayed the date of its first crewed-flight and changed its acquisition strategy for the Orion project. NASA acknowledges that funding shortfalls reduce the agency’s flexibility in resolving technical challenges. The program’s risk management system warned of planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. Consequently, NASA is now focused on providing the capability to service the International Space Station and has deferred the capabilities needed for flights to the moon. Though these changes to the overarching requirements are likely to increase the confidence level associated with a March 2015 first crewed flight, these actions do not guarantee that the program will successfully meet that deadline. Nevertheless, NASA estimates that Ares I and Orion represent up to $49 billion of the over $97 billion estimated to be spent on the Constellation program through 2020. While the agency has already obligated more than $10 billion in contracts, at this point NASA does not know how much Ares I and Orion will ultimately cost, and will not know until technical and design challenges have been addressed.

At the same time that the GAO was conducting this audit, an independent committee appointed by newly elected President Barack Obama was reviewing the status of the U.S. human spaceflight program. Its report, titled Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation, concluded that Ares I and Orion would not fly until at least 2017:

Given the funding upon which it was based, the Constellation Program chose a reasonable architecture for human exploration. However, even when it was announced, its budget depended on funds becoming available from the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010 and the decommissioning of ISS in early 2016. Since then, as a result of technical and budgetary issues, the development schedules of Ares I and Orion have slipped, and work on Ares V and Altair has been delayed ...

The original 2005 schedule showed Ares I and Orion available to support the ISS in 2012, two years after scheduled Shuttle retirement. The current schedule now shows that date as 2015. An independent assessment of the technical, budgetary and schedule risk to the Constellation Program performed for the Committee indicates that an additional delay of at least two years is likely. This means that Ares I and Orion will not reach the ISS before the Station’s currently planned termination, and the length of the gap in U.S. ability to launch astronauts into space will be at least seven years.


The U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee meets June 2009 in Washington, D.C. Image source: The Space Review.

In February 2010, the Obama administration proposed cancelling Constellation but using Orion as an ISS lifeboat. After months of outrage on Capitol Hill, Congress finally agreed to cancel Constellation but replaced it with another program called the Space Launch System. SLS has no missions or destinations; its purpose is to protect Shuttle and Constellation jobs and the contractors who employed them. Critics dubbed SLS the Senate Launch System. Orion would now be the crew vehicle atop SLS — although the 2010 NASA Authorization Act written and passed by Congress was silent on where Orion's crew members would actually go.

An April 2013 GAO report titled NASA: Assessment of Selected Large-Scale Projects reviewed the status of the SLS version of Orion:

The project has experienced delays in building and delivering hardware for its first exploration flight test (EFT-1) which could threaten the launch currently scheduled for September 2014. EFT-1 will test numerous separation events, the thermal protection system, and the parachutes, all of which protect the crew during flight, reentry, and landing events. Development challenges coupled with an aggressive schedule have led the project to miss more internal milestones than anticipated for this test event. The project is currently working to develop a mitigation plan in order to meet their planned September 2014 test date ...

The current projected mass of the spacecraft for the first crewed flight test exceeds the recommended mass by over 5,000 pounds. Project officials have deferred mass reduction activities for the first non- crewed flight to the first crewed flight. The project plans to use EFT-1 component testing and flight test results, among other analyses, in order to further refine the spacecraft’s design to meet mass requirements.

Project officials are tracking a risk that the thermal protection system could crack due to the thermal expansion stress loads of the heatshield prior to reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, which could threaten the safety of the crew and success of the mission. This cracking property was known prior to selection of the heatshield material, but project officials have been conducting stress analyses on the heatshield, among other studies, to understand the magnitude of the cracking. These analyses have delayed production of the heatshield for EFT-1.The heatshield was deemed mature during its critical design in May 2012, and project officials expect its capability to be fully demonstrated in EFT-1.


May 30, 2014 ... Lockheed Martin technicians and engineers attach the heat shield to the Orion crew module for Exploration Flight Test-1. Image source: NASA.

More than ten years after Bush's speech, more than eight years after the Orion contract was issued, and more than three years after Congress saved it from the grave — Orion is ready to roll out.

An August 29, 2014 NASA press release solicited requests for media credentials to cover Orion's departure from the Operations & Checkout Building. It will move to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility, where Orion “will be fueled with ammonia and hyper-propellants for its mission. It will later be moved again for the installation of its launch abort system.”

NASA is targeting December 4 to launch the capsule atop a Boeing Delta IV from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Exploration Flight Test 1 will have Orion complete two orbits around Earth at an altitude of 3,600 miles, then re-enter the atmosphere to test the heat shield.

The capsule can only be used once. Lockheed Martin will have to build another one for the next flight.

When will that be? Not for about four years.

NASA announced on August 27 that the Space Launch System is already delayed a year; in bureaucratic parlance, they are now 70% confident the SLS will be ready by November 2018.

That 70% confidence applies only to the rocket, not to the next Orion capsule or the service module being built by the European Space Agency.

How much money has been spent on Orion and its earlier incarnations is anyone's guess. The same could be said of its future.

From those who fantasize of doing Apollo again, we're bound to hear the drumbeat of American exceptionalism. One wonders just how “exceptional” a nation is that spends billions of dollars over eight years to complete one capsule for a two-orbit uncrewed test flight.

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