DENVER — Lockheed Martin has cut out an entire test article from the Orion
crew exploration vehicle that it is recasting in a new role as deep-space Multi
Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), combining test objectives for the remaining
articles in an effort to keep the vehicle within the tight schedule set by
By combining the tests that will be conducted with particular test articles,
the company plans to send an Orion capsule into orbit on its first test flight
in 2013, according to Cleon Lacefield, the company’s program manager. The first
capsule produced is now being prepared for ground tests at company facilities
here and once those are over, it will be reinstrumented to fly on the first
ascent abort test in 2014.
By dropping the test article originally intended for that evaluation — which
is intended to validate the ability of the vehicle’s solid-fuel escape tower to
pull it off a failing launch vehicle at maximum dynamic pressure during ascent —
the company has been able to start work on the test capsule that will fly to
space for the first time.
“With the funding changes, the program realignments, all of those kinds of
things, we’ve been able to preserve the core of this test program and kind of
make it more than it would have been by combining a bunch of tests into single
articles,” says Jim Kemp, director of assembly, test and launch operations for
the new spacecraft.
Lockheed Martin won the original crew exploration vehicle prime contract
under the old Constellation program initiated by the administration of
then-President George W. Bush to build a series of shuttle-replacement vehicles
able to take astronauts out of low Earth orbit to the Moon and beyond.
President Barack Obama called for termination of the program in his fiscal
2011 NASA budget request. But after more than a year of wrangling between
Congress and the White House, Orion was preserved as the MPCV for deep space
exploration. During the debate Lockheed Martin kept working on the capsule,
which has been described as “Apollo on steroids,” using Constellation funding
available under appropriations language that prohibited NASA from terminating
the program. The first test article was built at the Michoud Assembly Facility
in New Orleans, where it underwent pressure testing before being sent here for a
more rigorous workout.
New instrumentation is being installed to test how Orion will hold pressure
with a lot of its internal systems installed, including an instrumented window
to measure how the glass flexes under pressure. Acoustic testing will follow,
using generic acoustic loads that should cover any of the potential launch
vehicles NASA chooses for the vehicle’s flight test program. Kemp points out
that the Orion was designed to launch on the Ares I rocket, which was under
development by Constellation before the program was terminated.
If all goes according to schedule, piloted operations of the Orion could
begin as early as 2016, Lockheed Martin says.