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New American Spaceship Gains Metallic Reality

By | March 17, 2008

      Mockup Orion Space Capsule Built, To Fly In Emergency Abort Test Later This Year

      Ares 1-X Rocket Simulation Built; First Ares Flight In April Next Year

      NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER, HAMPTON, Va. – NASA efforts to create a new American spaceship at last are moving from years of talk and tentative plans, designs and development, and into the reality of objects with physical form and metallic matter, sleekly shiny and hard to the touch.

      While it will be another seven years before the Orion spaceship carries astronauts into the black void above, the spacecraft seems to exist now and will fly, briefly, close to Earth on a mission abort test this year.

      That mockup of the Orion space capsule now sits in a hangar here at NASA Langley Research Center.

      And in Ohio, an Ares 1-X rocket simulation like those that someday will lob Orion spaceships into orbit sits, huge and hulking, giving tangible form to dreams and drawings.

      Even though the Orion mockup isn’t actually the next-generation U.S. spaceship — it just looks like one — the model crew exploration vehicle mockup may make the difference of life and death for those who someday will fly the real thing.

      Testing with the mockup will begin Dec. 11 this year on a life-saving emergency abort system, followed by other tests, and even more of this would be welcome if budget constraints permitted it, said Rick Gilbrech, associate NASA administrator for exploration systems and mission directorate.

      "I would like to have more flight tests," he said, because "you always learn when you fly," but NASA will "live within the constraints of the budget."

      The key, he said, is to make sure that NASA budgets provide firm, enduring, predictable support for the Orion program. "The key to that is to maintain stable funding," he said.

      The Orion spacecraft mockup, sitting in a Langley hangar where journalists inspected it, will be used in actual tests of an escape system that would permit the Orion crew to elude death by soaring up and away from, say, a rocket exploding beneath them on the launch pad.

      NASA officials briefed the media on the new mockup, and then provided an up-close look at it.

      Ares 1-X Simulation

      Also last week, about 400 miles away in Cleveland, NASA leaders at Glenn Research Center unveiled a full-scale element simulation of the Ares 1-X rocket that will lift Orion into space and, later, back to the moon.

      The real Ares 1-X will be flying soon, set for a test launch and flight in April next year.

      Reporters were permitted to climb inside the 18-foot wide, 45-foot tall simulation of the Ares I upper stage, which was designed and manufactured at Glenn. The simulated element represents the size, outer shape and mass of the second stage of the Ares I rocket.

      The full scale upper stage element will be tested and have instrumentation installed before it is integrated with the other parts of the Ares I-X vehicle for the test flight. The finished elements also represent completion of the first manufacturing activity at Glenn of a full-scale launch vehicle demonstrator in two decades.

      Likewise, the Orion mockup was created by NASA craftsmen at Langley.

      Compared to the existing space shuttle fleet, the Orion-Ares spaceship will be far safer, according to briefers.

      That’s because the shuttle suffers an inherently unsafe design, partly caused by its giant external fuel tank that is needed so the shuttle can haul huge, and hugely heavy, objects to assemble the International Space Station.

      The problem is that the giant tank, covered with foam insulation, towers over the orbiter vehicle in which the crew sits. And some of that foam insulation sometimes breaks loose, striking the orbiter. Once, some foam punched a hole in the orbiter vehicle of Space Shuttle Columbia, which later caused the loss of both ship and crew during reentry in 2003. And two decades ago, O-rings failed on Space Shuttle Challenger solid rocket boosters, which exploded. Again, both the ship and a crew of seven were lost.

      NASA will have a far safer spaceship in the Orion crew exploration vehicle space capsule, similar to the old Apollo capsule, and the Ares rocket that will propel Orion into space, according to NASA briefers.

      For one thing, there will be no giant external fuel tank on this new spacecraft system, so there won’t be any chunks of foam insulation breaking loose to cause harm to the Orion crew exploration vehicle.

      Rather, it will sit at the very top of the stack, atop the Ares rocket. That means the crew quarters will be up 300 feet above the ground, or more than half as high as the 555- feet-plus Washington Monument.

      This isn’t, of course, to say that nothing can go wrong. Safe space travel is an oxymoron. Rather, there always is risk in the hostile environment beyond the home planet and its atmosphere.

      Curbing Risk In Missions

      Orion will provide far less spaceflight risk for astronauts, Jay N. Estes, deputy of the Orion Flight Test Office at Johnson Space Center, said in a briefing at Langley Research Center.

      The impending flight test, in which the abort system will be tried out on the Orion mockup vehicle, is an example of how NASA now wishes to avoid major, costly mistakes by executing flight tests before the design review of a new system is complete, so that problems and errors can be unearthed and corrected before the first article of the system is built.

      Beside the Orion spaceship mockup is a mockup of the ascent abort system rocket that would power Orion away from danger to rescue astronauts if a crisis develops.

      The rescue system includes a frame connecting the top of the Orion space capsule with a rocket. In event of an emergency, Orion would separate from the Ares rocket, and the escape rocket on the abort system would begin firing to lift Orion up and away from the malfunctioning Ares. Finally, the escape rocket would detach from the capsule, providing open space for parachutes to deploy — first, a set of drogue chutes to ensure Orion is in the correct attitude, and then three main chutes developed at Johnson Space Center to slow Orion’s descent to Earth or the ocean.

      In the abort system test later this year at the Army White Sands Missile Range, N.M., the Orion mockup flight will be suborbital and relatively brief, just long enough to show that the abort system works and will whisk astronauts to safety.

      The Pad Abort-1, or PA-1, test will show what happens when the abort system rocket yanks Orion up and away from simulated danger, generating 500,000 pounds of thrust subjecting Orion and its occupants, briefly, to 15 times the force of gravity. The Orion mockup will soar a mile up and a mile downrange.

      One problem is that the abort rocket is just above the Orion crew exploration vehicle, and the exhaust from the rocket is white hot. So instead of having the exhaust emerge in commonplace fashion from a nozzle at the bottom of the rocket, it comes out of four angled nozzles well up on the sides of the rocket, spraying away from the space capsule. Also, the angling may lessen slightly the deafening noise the escape rocket will create in and around the Orion capsule.

      After this test launched from a pad, other tests will involve activating the emergency abort system from a rocket firing in ascent mode.

      While the Orion mockup has the same size, shape, weight and mass distribution characteristics of the eventual real crew exploration vehicle, and looks like the genuine article from outside, the mockup inside now is largely empty.

      There are no control panels or astronaut seats, no mind-blowing technology. Rather, a pair of oversized dangling dice, like those found hanging from a teenager’s car review mirror, are the only custom installations visible inside.

      But later, engineers at Dryden Flight Research Center in California will add computers, sensors and other systems, 533 instruments and other gear in all to measure temperature, stress, strains, pressures and more, making the mockup appear more like the real thing, before it heads to White Sands for testing the abort system.

      Just fabricating the spaceship mockup probably cost about $3 million to $4 million, Phillip Brown, flight test article project manager at NASA Langley, estimated, exclusive of design costs. But this is a price NASA is willing to pay to save lives.

      Abort System Instant Response

      Another safety element being engineered into the Orion abort system is that it will be triggered by computers, which can sense imminent danger and respond to protect astronauts far faster than the astronauts could themselves, Estes said, responding to a question from Space & Missile Defense Report.

      For example, it is unknown whether crew members of Space Shuttle Challenger were aware that solid rocket boosters began exploding just seconds into their 1986 flight. With the Orion abort system, computers and sensors will perceive sudden danger and act instantly, without the mission commander or pilot having to make the momentous decision to abort the mission and thereby create a multi-million dollar equipment loss, and loss of time in completing missions.

      "We have addressed that," Estes said, by using computerized "abort decision logic."

      To test that this works, he said, during the third abort-system test on the Orion mockup, controllers will send the booster off target purposely, to determine whether the automatic triggering software and system works as intended. Aside from the test later this year, other tests are set for next year and 2012.

      When the real Orion lands, it may well be at sea in the style of the old U.S. Apollo spacecraft, rather than on land, as Russian spacecraft now do. Coming down on hard, unyielding terrain would have required installing prohibitively weighty cushioning mechanisms, to lessen the impact of the spaceship descending at a rapid clip of 26 feet per second, Estes said.

      Even with a water landing, Orion may have to come in at an angle, because at those speeds hitting water may feel like hitting concrete.

      While Orion from the outside looks much like an old Apollo space capsule, it has 300 percent more interior volume than the old moon-shot spacecraft.

      Contractors on the Orion portion of the Constellation Project include Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] as prime contractor, and Orbital Sciences Inc. [ORB]. On the Ares rocket portion of the Constellation Project, contractors for various segments of the rocket include The Boeing Co. [BA], the Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne unit of United Technologies Corp. [UTC], and Alliant Techsystems ATK Thiokol.

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