Orion prior to its EFT-1 test flight
NASA's Orion capsule prior to its EFT-1 test flight. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

WASHINGTON — As preparations ramp up for the first test flight of NASA’s Orion spacecraft in December, agency officials say they will be closely involved in all aspects of the mission even though the flight itself will be run by Lockheed Martin.

The Orion spacecraft for the mission, designated Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1, arrived at Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in the early morning hours of Nov. 12 after completing a circuitous 35-kilometer trip from the Launch Abort System Facility at the Kennedy Space Center. Workers hoisted the spacecraft later that day atop the United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket already on the pad.

That rocket is scheduled to lift off Dec. 4 at 7:05 a.m. EST and place Orion into Earth orbit. After completing one orbit, the Delta 4’s upper stage will reignite and send Orion into a more elliptical orbit, reaching a peak altitude of about 5,800 kilometers. Orion will re-enter at the end of that second orbit, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California, Mexico.

While EFT-1 lasts only four-and-a-half hours, NASA considers it a key mission in the overall development of Orion. The flight will address 10 of the program’s top 16 risks, including Orion’s thermal protection system and parachutes.

Despite its essential nature, NASA itself will not be in charge of the mission. Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for Orion, is responsible for the flight, providing flight data to NASA.

“We took a different approach with EFT-1. We’re basically buying services from Lockheed Martin,” William Hill, NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, said at a Nov. 6 briefing about the mission at KSC. “They are responsible for the mission. It is truly a commercial endeavor.”

“It’s somewhat unique for this mission. NASA is asking for a service and we’re providing the data back,” Bryan Austin, the Lockheed Martin EFT-1 mission manager, said at the briefing.

However, both NASA and Lockheed Martin officials emphasized that the agency will have considerable insight into the mission. Lockheed Martin has subcontracted the mission operations and spacecraft recovery work for EFT-1 to NASA, and NASA and company personnel will be working in what Austin called “blended teams” throughout the mission.

“The teams are highly integrated since this one flight test on the way towards EM-2, so all the engineers work together,” Garth Henning, Orion program executive at NASA headquarters, said in a Nov. 12 speech at a Space Transportation Association luncheon here. He was referring to Exploration Mission 2, the first crewed Orion mission, currently scheduled for 2021.

NASA Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer said at the Nov. 6 briefing that ULA will manage the launch itself in much the same way as any other mission, with NASA confirming Orion’s readiness for launch as a payload. Once it is in orbit, the NASA mission operations team contracted by Lockheed Martin will run the flight.

Should any issues arise with the flight, a mission management team at Cape Canaveral will address them. That team will be chaired by Lockheed Martin’s Austin, but with NASA participation as well. “I’m there, we’ll have safety and engineering there,” Geyer said. “We’ll talk about the particular issue, we’ll caucus and make the decision.”

“You’re going to have all of the folks at the Cape all in the same room,” Henning said of the mix of NASA and Lockheed Martin personnel. “A Lockheed person will be chairing the meeting, but it’s going to be all the same folks with all the same insight.”

While an unconventional arrangement, NASA and Lockheed Martin officials said that it has worked well so far. “That teamwork has really been vital, and is proving very productive in making us a very efficient and effective team,” Austin said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...