Government Shutdown Ripples Out to Work on Orion Capsule

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WASHINGTON — Engineers preparing NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle for a 2014 test flight were locked out of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida when the federal government shut down Oct. 1, but prime contractor Lockheed Martin is trying to get them back on the job, the company’s top civil space executive said Oct. 8.

“We’re holding [off on that work], of course, because of the challenges with the government shutdown,” Jim Crocker, vice president and general manager for civil space at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, said during a panel discussion at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium in Huntsville, Ala. 

So far, Crocker said, it does not appear that the work stoppage will delay the mission, scheduled for September 2014 and known officially as Exploration Flight Test-1. However, Crocker cautioned, “This [shutdown] can’t go on forever and not have a significant impact.”

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After Congress failed to pass a stopgap spending measure by the Oct. 1 deadline for new appropriations, the government shut down nonessential operations, idling more than 95 percent of NASA’s 18,000 civil servants and closing the doors at many agency facilities. Only programs essential to the protection of life and property were allowed to continue during the shutdown, and Orion was not on the list.

However, it is possible that NASA may allow the Orion team to return to the Operations and Checkout building at Kennedy to continue preflight processing that began in January. After all, Crocker pointed out, the agency granted an emergency exception only days after the shutdown for engineers to return to Kennedy and prepare the Mars Atmospheric and Volatile Evolution orbiter for its Nov. 18 launch. NASA said the spacecraft had to get to Mars on time because the communications hardware it carries is required to support safe operation of other spacecraft NASA has already sent to the red planet. 

In the 2014 test, Orion will not be launched by its intended carrier rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). Instead, an uncrewed version of Orion will be boosted to a highly elliptical orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida by a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 to test Orion’s heat shield.

Meanwhile, other NASA contractors who joined Crocker for the Oct. 8 panel discussion in Huntsville offered estimates on how long their businesses could continue more or less as usual during the shutdown. 

“As long as it doesn’t go on for a year, I think we’ll be OK,” said Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of space advanced programs  at Aerojet Rocketdyne in Sacramento, Calif. “At some point funding becomes an issue, but we’re in good shape probably for the next month to two months.”

“We probably have until early November before things like mandatory inspection points would become a problem,” said Charlie Precourt, vice president of the Space Launch Division of ATK Aerospace in Magna, Utah. “I think [the shutdown is] going to take care of itself.” 

ATK, which is providing a pair of shuttle-derived, five-segment solid rocket motors for each of the first two SLS flights, is grappling with delays unrelated to the federal government shutdown.

Precourt said at the symposium that the company has again delayed the hot-fire of a five-segment test motor, Qualification Motor-1, because of possible manufacturing and materials defects.

“We found some voids or air pockets” between the solid propellant in the aft section of the five-segment motor and the wall of the motor’s case, Precourt said Oct. 8. The discovery means ATK will have to recast the qualification motor, which is now slated to be tested early next year — almost a year later than originally scheduled.  

Virginia Barnes, Space Launch System program manager at SLS core stage and avionics prime contractor Boeing Space Exploration, said she foresaw no shutdown-related schedule impact “that’s not recoverable.”

SLS core stage work is five months ahead of schedule, Barnes said. The rocket’s pacing is the interim cryogenic propulsion stage NASA is procuring from Boeing for the first two SLS flights, which are scheduled for 2017 and 2021.

SLS avionics work, meanwhile, has been held up by the closure of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Barnes said. However, the former United Space Alliance boss did not expect the delay to affect the rocket’s 2017 debut.

 

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