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NASA EDGE: Orion Exploration Flight Test-1
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Orion Exploration Flight Test-1
- Jim Bray
- Stu McClung
- Josh Hopkins


ANNOUNCER: Orion, NASA’s next bold step to advance human space exploration, is preparing for its first major demonstration, Exploration Flight Test-1. It’s bigger than Apollo, more flexible than the shuttle but is it ready for deep space or does the co-host have other plans? Find out on NASA EDGE.


[Power tool noise]

RON: Let’s go without him today.

FRANKLIN: Yeah, let’s just do it live.

CHRIS: Okay. Hey, welcome to NASA EDGE.

FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

CHRIS: Unfortunately, we are in front of Blair’s garage and I have no idea why we’re here.

FRANKLIN: Yeah, we usually start our shows from one of NASA’s field centers or the industry partners but Blair said he had something special that he wanted to show us today.

CHRIS: While we’re waiting for him, today’s focus is going to be on the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 or EFT-1.

FRANKLIN: Yes, we were both recently at the Kennedy Space Center where we talked to NASA engineers and engineers from Lockheed Martin about this upcoming project.

CHRIS: In fact, in 2014, is the first flight test from Kennedy on board a Delta IV Heavy and this next generation spacecraft, or the Orion, is going to actually launch into orbit.

FRANKLIN: Yeah, today we have interviews that will talk about how the EFT was outfitted with instrumentation, parachutes, and the future of Orion manned space flights.

CHRIS: It’s pretty cool actually being down there at the Kennedy Space Center to actually see this spacecraft, to see the outer panels off and you actually saw the guts of the spacecraft.

FRANKLIN: Yeah, it left a lot of to your imagination because it’s so early in the project.

[Blair humming]

CHRIS: Let’s see if we…. Whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. He’s coming.

[Blair humming]

FRANKLIN: Hopefully we’ll get an update on what’s going on.

CHRIS: Stand by.

BLAIR: [speaking loudly] All right guys, it’s going to be…

CHRIS: Hey, hey.

BLAIR: Sorry. Oh, Third Rock Radio, America’s Space Station.

CHRIS: Cool.

BLAIR: You can never have too many notes when you’re working.

CHRIS: Now, are you following all of NASA’s safety protocols in there?

BLAIR: Yeah, yeah. I’m feeling pretty good about that, yes. Safety’s good. Safety’s good.

CHRIS: Okay.

BLAIR: Not only is safety good, I’m telling you, you guys are going to be amazed. You’re going to be impressed. This is the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s incredible. Five minutes.

CHRIS: Five minutes. All right, five minutes.

[Blair humming]

FRANKLIN: All right, since we have 5 minutes to burn, let's take a look at an interview that Blair did with Jim Bray from Lockheed Martin.

CHRIS: In fact, Jim actually goes over some of the milestones of the Orion spacecraft and how we’re inching closer and closer to that 2014 flight test.

FRANKLIN: I heard that Blair actually talked to Jim about hitching a ride on EFT-1. What’s that all about?

CHRIS: I don’t know. Let’s check it out.

BLAIR: I’ve got to tell you it’s kind of interesting. I’m sitting here looking at this thinking wow, it’s amazing to be here in front of Orion but this has got to be a real milestone for you and your group.

JIM: It’s really something. You know, there are fourteen different subsystems that all come together. They’re all going to pass through this building to make this spacecraft what it needs to be. This is just the first element, which is the primary structure. And yeah, we’ve got efforts going on all across the country with really smart people. They’re carrying a heavy load to make sure all that stuff gets here. In the next year, it’s really going to turn into a space ferrying vehicle.

BLAIR: I was going to say everything now, at least from what I understand, will all take place here. Everything will come here and be installed on the Orion.

JIM: That’s right. All the subsystems are really being designed and fabricated in other parts of the country. They come here to be installed in this crew module.

BLAIR: I don’t know. Call me crazy but it seems like it’s perfect for someone my size, for me to command this kind of module. Did you design it for somebody my height?

JIM: Yes, we do.

BLAIR: Oh, see! Built in perimeters for me.

JIM: Built in perimeters, we can accommodate anywhere form you to the Jolly Green Giant.

BLAIR: Oh, well see now, that’s what I don’t want to hear. I was hoping it would have to be made custom-made for me.

JIM: You would be more comfortable in here because the habitable volume, while it’s a lot larger than Apollo was, if you think about the mission duration, it’s still a long time to be in there as your primary living quarters.

BLAIR: Now, we are still a ways away from human flight in an Orion, correct?

JIM: Yeah, we are but we could be closer. We’re going to pay as we go. And this will be a demonstration of all of our critical systems. In 2017, we’ve got people that will be pushing for that to be a human-rated mission as well. We’ve got people that would actually like to put an astronaut on it. We think it would be safe at that point in time but we’ve set our sites out a little bit further than 2017 and are really looking to get that off as our next mission.

BLAIR: Are you still taking requests for options to add, like, I don’t know, coffee makers, certain amenities that might be helpful in space?

JIM: We are. You know we have a mass target to meet. And that mass target is really pretty tough for us to do so we can get all the crew and all the provisions for a very long duration mission. The crew module that you see here, the next version will have to be lighter and even closer to the mass targets that we need to be able to accommodate all the human systems that we’re going to put on there.

BLAIR: Actually, when this launches in 2014, you’ll still be making improvements and maybe exceeding your requirements by the time we fly in 2017?

JIM: I think the best way to say it is that we’ve been a relatively skinny program. At this point, we’re going to take this spacecraft and we’re going to test it to find out just where the margins are.

BLAIR: Ah, okay.

JIM: And then we’ll be able to take advantage of that in the next iteration to get those margins out because we want every pound that we can get to be able to accommodate the crew.

BLAIR: At least you feel good, like you have room in subsequent versions.

JIM: We do. It’s good to start off a little heavy weight and then you can go on your diet. Yes.

BLAIR: Slim-fast for the Orion.

BLAIR: Guys, I’m very proud to introduce you to my latest and greatest acquisition. Be careful. There are active tools on the ground, a crew.

CHRIS: Hey, 3 to 1 it’s a Lego start-up kit.

FRANKLIN: Ah, probably.

BLAIR: Hey Franklin, that is not Captain America’s shield.

[Door closes]



CHRIS: Do you believe it?


BLAIR: Impressive, isn’t it?

CHRIS: What’s this?

BLAIR: Gentlemen, I want to present to you the centerpiece of CFT-1, Co-Rion.


BLAIR: Co-host Flight Test.


BLAIR: Well, it’s the first.


BLAIR: The more important thing is Co-Rion, co-host Orion. I’ve taken all the technology from Orion and implemented it in my own flight test article.

FRANKLIN: Where did you get all this metal?

CHRIS: Yeah.

BLAIR: Um, let’s just say I’m going to need a ride into work from you guys if that’s okay in the future. I had to scrounge a little bit.

CHRIS: You even worked the parachutes in here?

BLAIR: Parachutes, interesting. Yes, um, certainly an important part of CFT-1, so I’m sure that there’s some space to integrate that.

CHRIS: You know about parachutes.

FRANKLIN: Yeah. I actually talked to Stu McClung down at Kennedy Space Center. He talked to me a little about how they’re integrating parachutes into EFT-1, which looks very similar to CFT?

BLAIR: Yep. CFT or the Co-Rion. And it does look similar because it’s modeled closely on Orion. I look forward to learning a lot about the parachute technology and integrating it.

CHRIS: Heat shield?

BLAIR: After the true coat.

FRANKLIN: How is the parachute system evolved since the beginning of the Orion program to where we are today?

STU: When we first started back in 2006 to where we are now, we’ve had a few iterations of the basic numbers of chutes is the same. The main parachutes have gotten slightly larger. We adjusted them for vehicle mass but to the outside eye I don’t think you’d notice a change. As we’ve done all of our development tests, we’ve done things to improve the reliability and the safety of the deployment. We had a device called the torque limiter. We ran a series of ground tests and realized we didn’t need that in the system. We took that out. It made the system more reliable by making it safer. We adjusted the veracity. We added some holes to the chutes to make them a little bit more stable. We used to have the risers come up to the bottom of the parachutes. You would have a thing that was called a knuckle. It was a big metal mass. When you’d throw a big metal mass out of the back of a spacecraft it could knock around and hit things. We came up with designs called soft links that eliminated that large mass jumping around. Every time we run a test based on what we learn we tweek the design to make it a little bit safer, a little bit stronger.

FRANKLIN: You have a 20,000 lb. capsule but you don’t have it yet. How do you test parachutes to slow something like this down?

STU: We’ve built a couple of test capsules that give us the same characteristics. We have what looks like a big, giant dart. And we also have a capsule that looks very much like a finished Orion. It’s a little bit shorter. We put it on a sled and you let it go out the back of a C-17.

FRANKLIN: A 20,000 lb. version?

STU: Twenty thousand pound vehicle out the back of a C-17 with some parachutes to extract it out.


STU: And gravity always works. Once it’s out of the C-17, it’s separated from the sled that it sits on and starts to fall to the earth. That starts our parachute sequence. We use either the dart or the test vehicle depending on which type of test we’re running to help prove out that the parachutes are going to behave the way they expect.

FRANKLIN: Can you walk me through how parachutes will work on Orion when it reenters the Earth’s atmosphere?

STU: All right, you’ve come through reentry. You’re in the range of 25 to 30 thousand feet altitude. Based on computers, parachutes…

FRANKLIN: Hold on. I’m going to slow you down real quick.

STU: Okay.

FRANKLIN: The Orion capsule is down where aircraft actually fly before a chute is deployed?

STU: That’s correct.

FRANKLIN: Wow. Okay.

STU: We’ve ridden down, I always like to call it we’ve surfed down through the atmosphere till about 30,000 feet.


STU: The first set of chutes are called our Forward Bay Cover parachutes. They are deployed by a mortar. The parachutes are packed in a mortar tube. There’s a gunpowder charge in there. The computer says fire; all three of them receive the command. The three parachutes are shot out of the top of the mortar. They inflate real quickly. We fire some bolts and that basically takes the forward bay cover away and gets it away from the vehicle. Immediately after that happens the two drogue chutes are fired through a mortar. The drogues are 23 feet in diameter. They slow the vehicle down. They go through the reefing stages, which they open up in stages so they don’t overload the chute or the vehicle. You ride the drogues for a little while till you slow the vehicle down to the right point; cut them away. Then, the three pilot chutes are fired out. They’re actually attached to the three, large main parachutes. They pull the three main parachutes out of their bays and then the three chutes go through their reefing sequences and somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 feet, we’re under full reefing, and just ride them all the way to the ground.

FRANKLIN: At the Langley Research Center, we saw some testing of when the Orion model hit the water. It actually flipped over.

STU: That’s right. The Apollo history is that happened about half the time. When it’s upright, we call that Stable 1. If it turns over, like you described, that goes to Stable 2. So, we plan for Stable 2 happening.


STU: If it happens, there are five airbags that are installed in five of the six gussets in the forward bay. They stay there the whole mission. Once the computer has sensed we have landed, they cut away the main parachutes and then issue a command for the high-pressure gas that has been stored to blow down and inflate those 5 bags. The change in buoyancy just by those 5 bags inflating causes the vehicle to rotate and pop back up to Stable 1.

FRANKLIN: And they’re only going to inflate if it’s in Stable 2?

STU: It will actually…the way the software is written right now, it will inflate in either case. You do it that way if you happen to have an abort and go into the Atlantic Ocean, like into the North Atlantic on a high-altitude abort and land in rough seas for some case. Unlikely event, but if it did, you go ahead and inflate the bags because it helps ensure that the vehicle wouldn’t, in a bad wave, want to tumble back around.


BLAIR: I got the parachutes.

CHRIS: Okay.

BLAIR: But I’m a little concerned about buoyancy upon reentry for the Co-Rion.

CHRIS: Buoyancy?

BLAIR: Yeah, water landing; it’s got to be able to float.

CHRIS: Well, wait a minute. How are you going to get it off the ground?

BLAIR: Launching. I do need a launch vehicle. I need propulsion. Yes!

CHRIS: What’s your destination? Where do you want to go beyond low-Earth orbit?

BLAIR: The best thing to do here is to look at Orion and to sort of follow on their coattails.

CHRIS: Space station, asteroid?

BLAIR: Possibly.

CHRIS: Mars?

FRANKLIN: Well, speaking of the future, Chris knows a guy.

CHRIS: Yeah, Josh Hopkins from Lockheed Martin. He’s sort of the genius behind the looking at the flexible path, looking at all the different options that Orion can take. Maybe you can kind of tag along with that approach and see if you can come up with your own destination.

BLAIR: First, I need a flexible path about how I’m going to get this flight test article out of the garage. Like maybe I go through the door, maybe I go through the window, maybe I lift the garage. I’ve got lots of options that I’ve got to figure out before we move forward.


CHRIS: I don’t know.

BLAIR: Maybe buoyancy isn’t my biggest problem.

JOSH: One of the missions that we’re thinking for Orion is that we may use it in conjunction with another spacecraft, maybe a second Orion to go a near-Earth asteroid. That’s something like a 6-month trip. So, obviously, it’s a relatively small spacecraft. It’s a fairly cramped mission. We’re interested in how do we make that mission as short as possible. One of the things we’ve been focusing on is how do we find the asteroids that are the easiest to get to.

CHRIS: Right.

JOSH: That we can get there, spend as much time as possible and come back in just a few months.

CHRIS: How are you able to track those asteroids years and years down the road?

JOSH: That turns out to be one of the challenges. There are programs in place at various observatories to discover asteroids, particular the ones that might be hazardous but there is not a strong program to continue tracking those. We need to track them over weeks or months or years to really pin down their orbits and also to characterize what they’re made of, how fast their spin rates are. There’s actually a group of volunteer astronomers essentially. Some of them are at universities. Some of them have telescopes in their backyards. We work with them. They work with each other, and with NASA to figure out which ones to prioritize and to try and track those as much as possible.

CHRIS: You’re saying that we may have one, two, or maybe more spacecraft?

JOSH: Right.

CHRIS: So is the idea to develop a bigger spacecraft for Orion to dock to, then go onto the asteroid and then Orion will come back by itself?

JOSH: Right. That’s one possibility. One of the things we’re trying to figure out is how does an asteroid mission fit into a sequence of initial test flights, and then early, sort of, steps out into deep space, and then the asteroids, and then eventually leading onto Mars. Depending on the sequence, what you might do is a relatively, near-term, limited mission with just Orion-type spacecraft or you might use that flight as a way of testing the bigger habitats that you’re going to need for Mars missions. So, even though those might be bigger than we need for a 6-month asteroid mission, we want a way to test fly those and work out the bugs before we commit astronauts to a two and half year trip to Mars.

CHRIS: So, essentially, what we’re doing is going back to the days of the Gemini and Apollo where we do a series of missions leading up to the actual launch where we’re going to have humans going to an asteroid and conducting scientific research.

JOSH: Yeah, I think the analogy to Gemini is a very good one. Back then we identified that we needed to do things like figuring out how to do rendezvous and spacewalks before we could do Apollo. Gemini was the program that basically figured out how to do that sort of thing. We know that we need to be able to keep people safe for something like 6-month trips into deep space or a year into deep space for asteroids. One of the things we want to do is start doing deep space trips just beyond the moon, to the Earth/Moon L2 point.

CHRIS: Yes, the Lagrange point.

JOSH: Right.

CHRIS: And what is the Lagrange point?

JOSH: Well, a Lagrange point is basically a neat, little trick with physics to be able to make something like a space craft or some other body orbiting in this Lagrange point to be synchronized with the Earth and the Moon, or the Sun and the Earth as they go around in their orbits. There’s an L1 Lagrange point that’s on the near side of the moon and an L2 Lagrange point that is beyond the far side of the moon. If we put a spacecraft at that L2 point, it basically stays over the far side of the moon as the moon is going around the Earth. We have continuous visibility to the interesting science locations on the far side but we can also see Earth continuously as well.

CHRIS: The cool thing is we can actually park a space craft in a Earth/Moon L2, leave it there, resupply it maybe every couple years or so.

JOSH: Right.

CHRIS: And when we send astronauts all the supplies will be there when they arrive to that spacecraft.

JOSH: Right, within Lockheed Martin, we’ve looked at an initial flight that would send just an Orion to there and spend about two weeks orbiting and come back or you could envision something like a miniature space station there where you could send crews temporarily and they could control robots on the lunar surface.

CHRIS: Is there going to be a point of no return where the astronauts are going to be on their own for a while in space?

JOSH: Yes. One of the big things we have to learn how to do for a Mars mission or an asteroid mission is we have to learn how to get comfortable with the idea that astronauts can’t just come home quickly in an emergency.

CHRIS: Right.

JOSH: During the Space Shuttle, and Space Station programs where we’re in low-Earth orbit, there’s a variety of contingency-failure scenarios like that where basically the plan is go home as fast as you can. But when we’re at something like at L2, we might be something like 7 to 10 days away from Earth and an asteroid could be 60, 90, 180 days away from Earth. You can’t just count on being able to get back quickly. You’ve got to figure out things like, how do we prevent those failures from happening in the first place, and how do we fix them on board.

CHRIS: Right.

JOSH: The other problem is that if we’re at an asteroid, it might take something like a minute or two or three for radio signals from Earth to get to the crew. One of the things we’ve traditionally done in human space flight is the astronauts are really smart. They know a lot about their spacecraft but there are a lot of things that they rely on from the ground back in Houston to be able to keep an eye on or remind them of procedures for instance. So, we have to figure out ways to bring more of that capability up onto the spacecraft.

CHRIS: Thinking about that spacecraft that is going to be in L2, I guess you’re not so worried about time, right?

JOSH: Right.

CHRIS: Because if you can send a spacecraft that is very low energy…

JOSH: That doesn’t have the astronauts on board; it can take more time.

CHRIS: It can take more time. Where once you have the astronauts, you’ve got to get there and get there as fast as you can but also try to save as much energy as possible too. Right?

JOSH: Right. So one of the things that is interesting about using Lagrange points is that they might be good places to assemble the spacecraft for deep space missions. You may be able to use slow, efficient propulsion to climb out of the Earth’s gravity well but you’re not going very far. When it’s time to launch the crew, you can get them to that assembly point in a few days. Then you’ve got your whole system ready to go out to a more distant destination.

BLAIR: You know Orion is making some great strides. I didn’t even realize this whole Lagrange point thing. I’m going to have to hit Wikipedia. I don’t even know what that is.

CHRIS: Make sure you study Earth/Moon L2 Lagrange point.


FRANKLIN: And make sure you double check your references before you start quoting stuff.

BLAIR: Yeah, I’ve gotten burned by that one before. Anyway, I’m feeling a little behind schedule here with Co-Rion.

FRANKLIN: I wouldn’t get discouraged because NASA didn’t start with manned space flight a couple of weeks ago. They’ve been at this for a few years.

CHRIS: Especially with EFT-1, they’ve been working on this for a while and they’re on track for the 2014 flight test.

BLAIR: Still, I want to make a big splash. I want to make a big impression.

CHRIS: I tell you what. My advice to you is to make sure the Co-Rion is not identical to Orion. Make something that stands out between the two.

BLAIR: You mean something different other than just adding racing stripes. You mean something substantive.

CHRIS: Absolutely.

BLAIR: So, for example, why not break the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs?

CHRIS: Impressive.

FRANKLIN: Most impressive.

BLAIR: If you guys think that’s impressive, wait till you see my next project.


BLAIR: What you’re telling me is if I sign here, here, here and here, I own the Shuttle?

MAN: Absolutely.

BLAIR: Good deal. Is this odometer reading correct?

MAN: Yes, it is.

BLAIR: Thank you, sir.

BLAIR: All right, weather looks good. Let’s back it up, remembering all the safety rules. Just important to remember this morning all the pedestrian laws still apply even though there are people walking all around the shuttle. We want to be very sensitive. Let’s just understand that as we’re moving this vehicle, if we want to refer to it as the Shuttle, the Shuttle Orbiter, the Orbiter, we are in a free speech zone. Anyway, it doesn’t matter because this is now simply a motivator for my work on the next greatest spacecraft from the co-host, the Co-Rion. And what a motivator it is! Thank goodness we don’t have to parallel park.

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