LITTLETON, Colo. — Lockheed Martin Space Systems unveiled a state-of-the-art Space Operations Simulation Center here March 21 to highlight the progress the company is making on the Orion crew exploration vehicle despite continuing budget uncertainty.

The 3,800-square-meter facility — known as the SOSC for short — is designed to help reduce risk in piloted spaceflight endeavors. The SOSC is built upon a 500-meter-deep Colorado bedrock formation, enabling the facility to be ultrastable and isolated from vibration. That stability permits the testing of precision instruments and accurate navigation systems needed for space vehicles, company officials said.

Lockheed Martin used the SOSC’s public unveiling as an opportunity to draw attention to the fact Orion development continues — as Lockheed Martin’s vice president and general manager for human space flight programs, John Karas, put it — ”despite the turmoil and the continuing swirl around [NASA] budgets in 2011 and 2012.” 

“The bottom line of all of this is that Orion is getting ready to fly,” Karas said.

U.S. President Barack Obama proposed canceling Orion when he unveiled his annual budget request in early 2010. But by April of that year, Obama changed course, announcing that NASA would complete a lifeboat version of Orion for the international space station. Congress went a step further, directing the Obama administration in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to fund completion of a “Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle” leveraging Orion contracts, work force and investments.

NASA’s 2012 budget request, currently before Congress, includes just over $1 billion for the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle next year — about $400 million less than called for in the authorization act.

Karas emphasized that Orion, “affectionately known in the past authorization bill as the multi-mission crew vehicle,” is preparing for its first orbital flight in 2013, “and hopefully crewed operations in 2016.”

As a multifaceted facility, the SOSC can be configured to reduce risk in rendezvous, proximity operations, docking, descent and landing systems, Karas said. SOSC’s full-scale motion attributes can test and verify multiple mission scenarios, he said.

Karas said SOSC is on tap to help plan Orion-supported steppingstone missions beyond low Earth orbit, including piloted voyages to the Lagrangian point over the far side of the Moon, treks to asteroids, as well as a mission to the moons of Mars.

According to company spokeswoman Linda Singleton, Lockheed Martin, its teammates and the states of Colorado, Florida, Texas and Louisiana are investing about $300 million in Orion through state and local incentives, capital investment, and independent research and investment accounts. Approximately $35 million of those funds was invested in the SOSC, Singleton told Space News.


Docking embrace

A live demonstration of the SOSC abilities featured a simulated approach and docking of the Orion spacecraft with full-size replicas of international space station segments. “The goal is to sort of kiss between the two vehicles,” said former astronaut Bruce McCandless, now with Lockheed Martin Sensing and Exploration Systems.

“The Orion crew vehicle is significantly less massive than the shuttle orbiter, but it still must be precisely controlled in order to have a satisfactory docking embrace. For this reason we’re testing and developing autonomous docking systems,” McCandless said.

The SOSC currently supports integrated testing of Orion’s Relative Navigation System, which includes Sensor Test for Orion RelNav Risk Mitigation, or STORRM for short. That navigation and docking system is to be tested during Space Shuttle Endeavour’s mid-April STS-134 mission to the international space station.

This new docking navigation system prototype consists of an eye-safe Light Detection and Ranging Vision Navigation Sensor, or VNS, a high-definition docking camera, as well as the avionics and flight software. Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in neighboring Boulder, Colo., are responsible for the design, build and testing of the VNS and docking camera.

STORRM is one of the major subsystem tests that will be completed before Orion’s first orbital flight test, a mission that is to conduct high-altitude orbits of the Earth, followed by a high-energy re-entry that mimics the environment of a returning deep space mission.

An Orion spacecraft is on site here at a nearby vertical test facility, with installation of its thermal protection system and heat shield slated to occur in a couple of months, said Jim Bray, Orion Crew and Service Module director.

Bray said that this first Orion vehicle is then to undergo acoustic and structural testing. “All this test data is feeding into the final design,” he said, with the craft also to be used in simulated water landings at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.



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Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...