NASA hopes to test new spaceship in 2014

Jan 30, 2012 By Mark K. Matthews

There's no firm date yet, but sometime in early 2014 NASA intends to take its first major step toward rebuilding its human spaceflight program.

The milestone is the maiden test flight of its , a that has come into sharper relief in the three months since NASA and manufacturer Lockheed Martin announced it.

As planned, an unmanned Orion capsule will begin its journey at and take two loops around Earth before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. What's now clear is that the capsule will be sent far beyond the lower of the .

At its peak, Orion's orbit is expected to extend nearly 3,700 miles from Earth - the farthest a built for humans has gone since the early 1970s.

That distance is "significantly higher than human spaceflight has gone since Apollo," said Larry Price, Orion deputy program manager at Lockheed Martin. "The reason for that is so we can get a high-energy entry so we can stress the ."

The test will determine whether Orion can survive the re-entry into Earth's atmosphere - where temperatures are expected to reach 4,000 degrees - in preparation for a human flight in 2021. NASA hopes that Orion eventually can carry astronauts back to the moon or to nearby asteroids.

Besides the heat shield, the practice flight is designed to test 10 systems whose failure could be disastrous, including the capsule's flight software and parachutes. Like its Apollo-era predecessors, the four-person is designed to land in water.

"The beauty about flying in 2014 is that we can learn early [if there are problems], so if we find something we really got to fix we've got time before we fly people," said Mark Geyer, head of the Orion program at NASA.

The test also gives NASA, and Orion manufacturer Lockheed Martin, a chance to showcase part of the agency's new exploration program, details of which were agreed to last fall after a year of negotiation among the White House, Congress and industry.

In Florida, the test flight, which will cost $375 million, will provide Kennedy Space Center with some badly needed work. The retirement of the shuttle led to the loss of at least 6,000 jobs. Lockheed Martin plans to employ as many as 400 workers for Orion at Cape Canaveral as it approaches the test flight.

NASA's exploration program still is years away from being operational, and NASA leaders see the Orion test as a morale booster.

"It helps keep a sense of urgency. It helps keep the team focused on getting the work done. There's nothing like a flight to focus a team to get the work done on time," Geyer said.

The timetable for NASA's new exploration program envisions a first manned flight of Orion in 2021 aboard a new rocket - still under development - that NASA expects to be the most powerful ever. An unmanned test flight of that rocket, being built by Lockheed Martin rivals Boeing and ATK, is planned for 2017.

Orion, which already has cost $6 billion, is much farther along-as the capsule was salvaged from the defunct Constellation moon program, which Obama and Congress canceled in 2010.

So - at Lockheed Martin's urging - NASA decided to test Orion before the new rocket was ready.

Officially, Lockheed Martin has not yet selected a rocket for the Orion test; an announcement is expected in mid-February. Congressional, agency and industry sources, however, all expect the company to select its own rocket, the Delta IV, for the flight.

That has led to suspicion as to whether Lockheed Martin was either trying to upstage the new Space Launch System rocket or muscle in on the emerging market for commercial rockets, which NASA hopes will launch crew and cargo to the ISS within the next several years.

Two other companies, Boeing and SpaceX, offered their rockets to NASA as the agency was deciding whether to give Lockheed Martin full control over what rocket it would use for the .

NASA rejected these offers, citing Lockheed's experience with both the capsule and its rocket.

"[The] level of knowledge, specifically focused on the integration of the Orion spacecraft with a launch vehicle, gained over the 5-year period of performance under the Orion Contract could not be reasonably obtained by another contractor in time to meet the early 2014 launch date requirement," wrote NASA in its justification.

When asked about the possibility of shouldering its way into other areas of space exploration, Price described the Space Launch System as critical to deep-space exploration. But he added that it was important to stay flexible.

It is "prudent on us to try and mitigate risks everywhere we can for what kind of future ... there could be," Price said.

Explore further: NASA team lays plans to observe new worlds

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User comments : 15

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NotAsleep
4.5 / 5 (2) Jan 30, 2012
Boeing has proven itself on multiple occasions to offer more innovation into the process than Lockheed. Lockheed is a Defense-focused industry with no talent for thinking outside of that box (and fully willing and capable of taking advantage of every dollar given to it). Boeing's expertise spans across several industries with both civilian and military applications.

In a world where we're pushing for privatization of government functions, it amazes me that we continue to choose Lockheed over Boeing for projects that could easily bridge the civilian-governent gap
dschlink
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2012
With four different civilian programs that will be capable of putting people in LEO within the next five years, what purpose does SLS serve? A super-heavy lift vehicle makes sense, but in no way does it have to be man-rated.
hemitite
2 / 5 (2) Jan 30, 2012
What about solar storms? I have yet to see the issue of crew safety re the high levels of radiation that they can expect to occasionally encounter beyond earth's magnetosphere addressed. As is well know, it was just dumb luck that saved the Apollo astronauts from being fried in their capsules during their moon missions. I don't think that NASA should take that chance again.
ShotmanMaslo
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2012
With four different civilian programs that will be capable of putting people in LEO within the next five years, what purpose does SLS serve? A super-heavy lift vehicle makes sense, but in no way does it have to be man-rated.


As far as I know, there are only two different rockets that will be capable of putting people in LEO within the next five years, namely Falcon and Atlas.

Otherwise I agree with you, we dont need manned SLS. In fact, we may not need SLS at all, as heavy variants of Falcon and Atlas could put 30 and 50 tons to LEO, which could be enough for all our needs.
ldesmith
5 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2012
"The beauty about flying in 2014 is that we can learn early [if there are problems], so if we find something we really got to fix we've got time before we fly people," said Mark Geyer, head of the Orion program at NASA.

Early? the space shuttles are already retired, i'de say you are about 11 years late.
Joseph_Hasselmark
3 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2012
Well, a lot better than the first estimates of not having a new crew capsule before 2017 if I remember correct, also, the first estimates on the dates for the new launcher was beyond 2020, which would be a lot worse than todays schedule of first test flight of the next MCV in 2014 and the newly announced SLS in 2017 or 2018. I like Boeing, they are quite dependable when it comes to space technology, I'd be a lot more nervous if they would be relying on Orbital sciences or SpaceX for their new MCV.
Silverhill
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2012
"The reason for that is so we can get a high-energy entry so we can stress the heat shield." ... The test will determine whether Orion can survive the re-entry into Earth's atmosphere
Um, didn't they already develop and successfully deploy, many times, a heat shield for man-rated capsules? (The names "Mercury", "Gemini", "Apollo", and "Soyuz" come to mind....)
Vendicar_Decarian
1.4 / 5 (5) Jan 30, 2012
Current U.S. federal Debt = 15.25 Trillion.

_nigmatic10
1 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2012
Even if the company creating the new ship is lockheed and not boing, the general design for the thing is 40yrs old. Doubt they could get much wrong with it... much.
ScottyB
1 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2012
if they are doing this test in 2014, why does it take 7 years to get from that to the first manned mission? is it purely because they will be waiting for the rocket?
alq131
3 / 5 (2) Jan 31, 2012
Ahhh, if only cars had been designed like this...

Theoretical press release
Karl Benz 1885: we await further testing as we have determined another yet failure mode that may lead to loss of life. Some day the technology may exist to surround drivers in a safety air bag during a collision, to automatically put out fires, to remove the burden of driving from the driver...until that time, we will continue to develop "the car" but until all these life safety and failure modes are addressed, we will not release the car for use.
NotAsleep
not rated yet Jan 31, 2012
Just because a Ferrari operates in the same way as a Ford Fiesta doesn't eliminate the need to do testing on both products. The concepts of outer space flight and reentry remain the same but the designs, to include materials and manufacturing processes, are totally different. The plan isn't to dust off the old Apollo drawings and just build the same thing...

As for the seven year wait, it's to "advance critical technologies". Lockheed is an expert at selling you the next best thing instead of letting you settle for the plain, boring stuff we have now. It's also partly due to budget constraints. We could probably do manned missions much sooner if all the money was available immediately
truth4life
2.5 / 5 (4) Feb 05, 2012
politics gentlemen, politics. What really stinks and is suffient to smother out any great technological leaps, is the fact only about half a penny per dollar from your taxes goes towards NASA. Come on throwing pennies at our space program is an insult and the leaders of this country waste time and money on other crap that does nothing to advance our journey starwards. Obama effectivly put us behind with the cancelation of the constelation program, what lets start over because Im the president and Bush is an idiot. Who cares about their petty politics. We could already be on the moon and beyond by now.
ShotmanMaslo
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 05, 2012
Obama effectivly put us behind with the cancelation of the constelation program, what lets start over because Im the president and Bush is an idiot. Who cares about their petty politics. We could already be on the moon and beyond by now.


Constellation was a mess and there is no way we would not be on the Moon before 2020, probably much later.
truth4life
1 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2012
Obama effectivly put us behind with the cancelation of the constelation program, what lets start over because Im the president and Bush is an idiot. Who cares about their petty politics. We could already be on the moon and beyond by now.


Constellation was a mess and there is no way we would not be on the Moon before 2020, probably much later.

what is a mess is government spending, I stand by my quotes,very little incintive to explore space while there space on terra firma to fight over