Science and Technology News

Thursday, January 15, 2015

AEDC celebrates successful launch of NASA Orion

by Deidre Ortiz
Arnold Engineering Development Complex Public Affairs

1/13/2015 - ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- NASA achieved a major milestone in completing the Orion spacecraft's first voyage to space recently.

Having had a hand in testing the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, Arnold Engineering Development Complex is also celebrating this accomplishment.

Mounted atop the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, Orion launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 37 at 7:05 a.m. EST on Dec. 5, 2014.

AEDC project engineer Nathan Payne, who coordinated the testing for Orion in support of NASA Exploration Flight Test-1, stated he's pleased the flight went smoothly because, even with the amount of testing that went into prepping the spacecraft, these events are unpredictable.

"Space flight is still risky, so to have a successful first launch was a relief," he said. "There are a lot of people looking over data we took here and doing checks to ensure data quality, but stuff still happens."

Payne's sentiments of the flight were similar to those of Mark Geyer, Orion program manager.

"We had the models and we have the best people on the planet, but until you fly it, you don't know," Geyer said.

A 5.9 percent scale model of the Orion crew capsule mounted on the Delta IV booster was tested in the 16-foot transonic wind tunnel at AEDC in preparation for the spacecraft's initial flight. The AEDC test team, along with a United Launch Alliance team led by Mike Schoonmaker, gathered dynamic pressure and steady state pressure data from the model.

In addition to flight testing, AEDC Tunnel 9 test facility in White Oak, Md., was used in early 2007 during a NASA-sponsored aerothermal test on a scale model to obtain heating data over the model's surface. That same year NASA once again teamed up with AEDC engineers to test possible materials for Orion's heat shield at the Complex's High Enthalpy Aerothermal Test H2 facility.

During the Dec. 5 flight, Orion orbited Earth twice and traveled a distance of 3,600 miles into space, farther than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has been in more than 40 years. This is 15 times higher than the International Space Station. Video taken from the windows of the spacecraft captured images of what Earth looks like from that height.

On its voyage, the spacecraft also flew through high radiation in the Van Allen belts twice, and its systems held up fine. Four-and-a-half hours later, Orion splashed down in the Pacific Ocean approximately 600 miles southwest of San Diego.

NASA, the U.S. Navy, and Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin worked to recover Orion and return it to shore. The spacecraft was then transported to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida where engineers received more information about its performance.

Though unmanned for this trip, the flight tested many of the vital elements for human spaceflight such as key separation events, parachutes and the heatshield. During re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, Orion endured speeds of 20,000 mph and temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Data from the flight test will be used to improve Orion's design and reduce risks to future mission crews.

"[The] flight test of Orion is a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space on our Journey to Mars," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "The teams did a tremendous job putting Orion through its paces in the real environment it will endure as we push the boundary of human exploration in the coming years."

If further testing on Orion is needed, Payne said he and his team are ready to assist.

"I am really glad for ULA and Orion, and I look forward to any future test they will have here at AEDC," he said.

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