WASHINGTON — A NASA safety panel says the agency is studying issues with the design of the side hatch of the Orion spacecraft that could affect its ability to be opened in an off-nominal situation.

During a Feb. 28 public meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), members said NASA has been looking at “a number of issues” with the Orion side hatch over the last six to nine months.

William Bray, the ASAP member who discussed the status of NASA’s exploration programs at the briefing, did not go into specifics about the hatch issue, only that it could affect “contingency operations” on the launch pad or after splashdown.

“NASA has been investigating a number of issues associated with the side hatch design, probably over the last six to nine months,” he said. “It’s really specifically an area where it could affect or impact crew ability to open the hatch in a contingency operation either on the launch pad at launch or landing on return to Earth.”

He noted the astronaut office had been involved with the issue. “Their nights will be invaluable to any resolution for design fixes or concept of ops changes,” he said. “Still more work to be done.”

He didn’t further describe the hatch issue. ASAP, in its annual report released in January, makes a passing reference to a “delta-pressure capability” issue with the hatch, noting that the program “is also conducting side hatch delta-pressure testing that should help define the system’s limits and operational and contingency operations procedure.”

NASA spokesperson Rachel Kraft told SpaceNews March 1 that there was a need for additional analysis on the performance of hinges in the side hatch. “The ASAP requested a status on the design of Orion’s side hatch regarding requirements for pressure changes in normal and emergency scenarios to ensure the hatch can safely open in all cases either by recovery personnel or by the crew themselves, if necessary,” she said.

“Full-scale testing is underway to verify the capability and develop operations required to ensure the hatch can be opened in a variety of different potential pressure scenarios,” she added.

The hatch issue was one of two with Orion mentioned at the ASAP meeting. The other is the ongoing study of greater-than-expected erosion of heat shield “char” material during Orion’s reentry on the Artemis 1 uncrewed mission in December 2022. That issue was one of three with Orion that NASA cited in January as reasons for delaying Artemis 2, the first crewed Orion mission, from late 2024 to no earlier than September 2025.

“From our view, we see the team very close to getting to the root cause understanding of the char loss,” Bray said. The key factors, he explained, involve the density of heat shield and coating material composition, as well as “associated permeability and porosity characteristics” of those materials.

He said NASA expected to complete the heat shield investigation “in the next month or coming months” that could have implications for Artemis 2 and later missions. “It will inform decisions on the reentry trajectory, particularly for Artemis 2, and also may have some long-term solutions relative to the heat shield beyond Artemis 2 into the Artemis 3 missions and beyond.”

For both the heat shield and hatch issues, he concluded, “we don’t see any showstoppers at this time relative to that” for Artemis 2. Kraft added March 4 that the hatch issue was not on the critical path to the Artemis 2 launch.

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...