Mark Geyer told employees PA-1 test data will contribute to future spacecraft. (NASA Photo / Tony Landis) The May 6 successful Pad Abort 1 flight test at the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico will play a role in astronaut safety regardless of what the next space vehicle will be when the space shuttles are retired, Orion project manager Mark Geyer told Dryden employees at a May 24 all-hands meeting.
In introducing Geyer, Center Director David McBride called the Pad Abort 1 test "a truly astounding event to watch," adding "it showed what a multi-center team can do when they put their heads and hearts into something - it works really well." The project is managed at Johnson Space Center, Houston.
Geyer thanked Dryden employees for their work and support on the Pad Abort 1 crew module, which included integration of avionics and the operations needed for launch. The crew module was essentially unscathed after the research flight and it is to be returned to Dryden in June.
"[Program officials] are trying to [visit] all of the places that did such an incredible job for Pad Abort 1, and of course you guys were on the leading edge," Geyer said. "What a great flight. It's one of the things I will probably remember for the rest of my life. Those of you who were there or saw it might feel the same way."
He also highlighted what's next for Orion and the challenges ahead. The key challenges to the program are the budget and what the U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama negotiate regarding Orion. It appears that both are talking about an Orion vehicle, but what it will do and the amount of funding to be allocated for building it are yet to be determined.
With funding uncertain after the February release of the presidential budget, reductions have been expected, Geyer said. About a 20 percent reduction in funds to prime contractor Lockheed Martin is anticipated, and work adjustments have been made to keep a focus on the target of flying astronauts into space regardless of the shape the space program takes, he said.
"All the work we are doing this year on Pad Abort 1 and other pieces continues the hard work and development on giving the United States the capability to fly people in space. We're going to continue to do that because it positions the United States to be as close as possible to launching people as soon as we can," he said.
Toward that goal, a state-of-the-art rendezvous and docking system similar to the one planned for a future Orion vehicle is to be used on the final scheduled space shuttle mission to the International Space Station. The system is comprised of a laser system, a docking camera and an avionics box that will be attached in the shuttle payload bay. When the shuttle approaches the ISS, a laser will track a target on the station. It will give researchers experience with the systems before they are used on a future space vehicle.
At NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana, which reports to Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., a key milestone has been reached in construction of a primary structure for the Orion crew module. The final weld for a pressure system was completed through a special process that was used to complete a 440-inch, defect-free component, Geyer said.
The Pad Abort 1 test at White Sands was key for demonstrating that integration of the motors and electronics can be successfully completed and will protect astronauts in the case of an emergency.
"It goes from zero to 600 in two-and-a-half seconds, so it's moving. The job of this system is to get the crew off of a launch vehicle that is malfunctioning," he said.
Also during the research flight, the motors successfully reoriented the crew module to make sure that parachutes opened into the wind. For that to have happened, the models used to determine force such as how it would fly, the loads and stresses on the vehicle were confirmed as correct, he said. However, data obtained from the flight can make the models even better.
"We are going to get [about] 670 measurements and that kind of data will be huge to help us to improve our models; our models are so important for the long-term development of Orion or any other launch vehicle escape system," Geyer said.
The production version will be designed to have the main rocket accelerate the module to 12 g's, which is much less than the 16 g's demonstrated on the Pad Abort 1 vehicle. That will make for a safer ride, he added.
Such a launch abort system has been used only once, in the Russian Soyuz capsule. It was "a matter of life and death" that the system worked on that vehicle, Geyer said.
Vladimir Titov is the only person living to have survived a spacecraft abort after launch and he spoke about his experiences during a Dryden Safety Day in July 2008.
Titov and fellow cosmonaut Gennady Strekalov were scheduled for launch on board Soyuz T-10 on Sept. 27, 1983, when a valve in the propellant line failed to close at T-90 seconds. A fire broke out at the base of the launch vehicle just one minute before launch, quickly engulfing the rocket, and the automatic abort sequence failed as system wiring burned through.
Two launch controllers manually aborted the mission 12 seconds after the fire began. The Soyuz descent module was pulled clear by the launch escape system, and after being subjected to forces of 15 to 17 g's, the crew landed safely about two and a half miles from the launch vehicle. It exploded seconds after the Soyuz separated. The two men were unharmed during their five-minute, 30-second flight.
That's why Geyer wants the launch abort system to be ready when U.S. astronauts make their way in a new vehicle.
The emerging Orion is considered "block zero," he said, meaning that it is about the same size as the actual spacecraft but systems that won't be needed until later, such as a toilet and extended-duration equipment, were taken out to carry out the test with a simpler and less expensive vehicle.
Capabilities can be added back incrementally and more test flights will allow researchers to learn early on how systems are performing. This approach could allow for an early test flight version of the Orion capable of getting a crew up to the ISS by 2014.
In order to meet that goal, the Orion management team is reviewing an idea for a flight test near term called Ascent Abort 1, which could make use of the Pad Abort 1 crew module and fit within the expected budget, Geyer said. "The content [of the space program] has not changed, just the budget. Flight tests are options we are looking at," Geyer said, adding that there are prospects for "a lot of cool work."