“Space … the final frontier.” Patrick Stewart’s resonant introduction to each Star Trek episode captures the awe, fascination, and determination that have drawn humans into space.
Starting with the Mayans, the discoveries of the Copernican Revolution, and the manned voyages of the mid 20th century, our love affair is far from over.
NASA’s next exploratory craft
The quest continues to find out more about the universe, and so does the development of technologies to accomplish that goal. Investments of time, money, and labor to develop, test, and deploy have been considerable.
The EFT-1 Orion (the acronym stands for Exploration Flight Test) is a perfect example of this. Having launched the project in the summer of 2011, NASA has taken two years to get to the testing stage.
Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) engineers kicked it off with the initial welding assembly of the module. EFT-1 Orion then graduated (and moved) to the Kennedy Space Center’s O&C (Operations & Checkout) Building in 2012 and began the 17-month process of outfitting operations.
As NASA’s next exploration spaceship, the stakes are high for Orion. It’s necessary to take the proper length of time to outfit, test, and perfect the craft.
The project schedule aims to have the EFT-1 Orion mission in motion within 15 months. The various teams are knee-deep in preparations that include extensive land and sea testing. Some of the major testing milestones: Parachute testing, heat shield preparations, evaluation of sea recovery assets, and Kennedy processing and stacking.
What is stacking?
The popularity of NASA’s space program introduced the general public to the science of space travel. Americans have become familiar with the need for heat shield testing, but what is stacking and how does it fit into the development of a new spaceship?
The Orion crew and service module manager at the Johnson Space Center, Charlie Lundquist, explains: “The static loads campaign is our best method of testing to verify what works on paper will work in space [...] This is how we validate our design.”
Early tests uncovered small defects that required engineers to reinforce the bulkhead, in order to add structural integrity. With stacking testing, that fix was deemed successful because the module was placed in an environment that pressurized it to 110% of what it is expected to encounter in space.
Engineers reproduced those stresses with 20-foot-tall static loads in which hydraulic cylinders steadily pushed and pulled on the spacecraft. After eight completed tests, no critical problems turned up. One of the most impressive feats of load testing and stacking is the size and engineering of the equipment required to hoist all these large pieces and to do so with incredible precision.
Stacking has also been used by the Orion Lockheed Martin team for the Launch Abort System prior to transport for integration with the launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral.
Ready for action … almost
Failed missions of the past have resulted in tragedies that affected the American public and the space program. Thus, rigorous, frequent, and multi-faceted testing is done. EFT-1 Orion is still slated to go through many tests, for many things.
The US Navy will participate in the sea recovery testing phase in Virginia after planning meetings in San Diego. Considered the most dangerous parts of the mission, entry and reentry are high on the priority list. Without a doubt, the scale of this project is equal to its astronomical aspirations and requires large equipment and resources to accomplish its goals. American companies were retained to hoist, conduct load testing, and make the dream of a successful Orion mission possible.
A previous failure in testing (in which panels did not separate as designed), meant that major hurdles still had to be overcome. The Orion Program manager, Mark Geyer, says “This was a challenging system to design and test [...] Completing this test helps us evaluate our design and assure mission safety and success.”
Final tests are slated for early 2014 and will include thermal load testing.