Op-ed | Three Things Orion’s First Flight Taught Us

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A few days before New Year’s Eve, after the Orion capsule finished its cross-country trek from San Diego to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, engineers got to work analyzing the data from the 1,200 onboard sensors that measured every aspect of the spacecraft’s performance during its Dec. 5 debut.

One of the most important benefits from Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 is being able to evaluate our designs and verify that our models match actual flight performance. This is critical for the future design process as we continue to develop the most advanced spacecraft ever built.

Now that we’ve had a chance to reflect on the ocean of data that’s come back, here are my top three takeaways:

1) Some deep-space designs are classic for a reason.

Thankfully, we’re guided by 50 years of NASA’s investment in human spaceflight.

You might note that Orion’s shape hearkens back to Apollo. That’s because every aspect of Orion’s design is driven by crew safety, and the laws of physics are the same today as they were in 1960. That’s the shape that has been proven to work best for high-velocity returns from deep space.

And just as lessons learned from previous NASA missions help guide Orion’s design, over 500 products resulting from Orion’s development have been shared with commercial space companies.

An example of what’s new is Orion’s launch abort system (LAS). On deep-space missions, mass is king. Any extra weight takes away valuable mass required for micrometeoroid protection, radiation protection and life support needed to keep astronauts safe beyond low Earth orbit. So about six minutes into launch, the LAS is jettisoned to save mass. While there are other ways to build a LAS, our design trade studies repeatedly highlighted the advantage of not carrying extra weight past the time it is needed.

Five years ago we conducted a comprehensive launch abort system test. That test and EFT-1 validated that the added control of a sophisticated attitude control motor coupled with shedding excess mass are key to success for journeys to deep space.

Orion
The Orion spacecraft is transported to the launch pad for EFT-1. Credit: Lockheed Martin

2) Crew safety is built in, not bolted on.

EFT-1 tested and verified systems that are built “into the bones” of the spacecraft from the very beginning. Every component — from the heat shield and the flight computers to the fundamental systems and structure of the spacecraft — is designed for the rigors of deep space:

  • Orion’s seats are designed to help prevent loss of consciousness as astronauts experience up to 5 Gs during re-entry.
  • The cooling system keeps the crew cabin at 25 degrees Celsius despite the more than 2,000-degree heat of re-entry.
  • The built-in stowage lockers double as a safe haven during dangerous solar activity.
  • The life-support system is highly reliable and is sized not only for basic functions but also to allow the crew to exercise, which is critical for long stays in zero gravity.
  • Computers and avionics have multiple backups and are designed to self-correct in the event of a failure.
  • Crew module tiles are designed to protect from the inevitable micrometeoroid strikes the craft will face during long-duration missions.

Building Orion for the first time was invaluable in developing the scheduling, tooling and workforce processes needed to accommodate these challenging designs.

3) Embrace reusability when it makes sense.

Part of flying for the first time in space is being able to make informed decisions about what we realistically can reuse following a deep-space mission. After evaluating the areas where we anticipated water intrusion and corrosion, we’ve come to expect that many components in the crew module, especially inside the pressure hull where the crew sits, can be reused for later flights — components such as the computers, avionics and electrical distribution, for example. Critical items outside of the spacecraft underneath the backshells are also being considered for reuse.

At the end of the day, we are taking what we have learned from years of investment, making improvements, flying, making improvements again, and developing a spacecraft that can take humans into deep space and bring them safely home. Deep-space vehicles must be purpose-built. When the first astronauts climb into Orion for Exploration Mission 2, and later for humanity’s first trip to Mars, the lessons from EFT-1 and future test flights will give us confidence that we’ve given them the safest, most advanced spacecraft the world has ever seen.

Michael Hawes is currently the Orion program manager for Lockheed Martin Space Systems. He has 37 years of experience in human spacecraft design, development and operations for NASA and Lockheed Martin.