Spaceflight Now Home


Sign up for our NewsAlert service and have the latest news in astronomy and space e-mailed direct to your desktop.

Enter your e-mail address:

Privacy note: your e-mail address will not be used for any other purpose.

Lockheed Martin to select Delta 4 rocket for Orion test

Posted: November 9, 2011

Bookmark and Share

NASA announced this week it has signed on to a long-sought proposal by Lockheed Martin Corp. for an unmanned orbital test flight of the Orion capsule in early 2014, clearing the way for final contract negotiations for a $370 million launch on a Delta 4-Heavy rocket.

Artist's concept of the Orion spacecraft launching on a Delta 4 rocket. Credit: NASA
The United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy is the largest U.S. rocket currently in existence, and it's needed to boost the Orion spaceship into an oval-shaped orbit stretching nearly 5,000 miles above Earth.

From there, the Orion will dive back into Earth's atmosphere at more than 20,000 mph, giving engineers key data on how the spacecraft responds to a re-entry at speeds nearly replicating what the capsule will see when returning from deep space missions to asteroids and other destinations.

"The entry part of the test will produce data needed to develop a spacecraft capable of surviving speeds greater than 20,000 mph and safely return astronauts from beyond Earth orbit," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations. "This test is very important to the detailed design process in terms of the data we expect to receive."

The Orion spacecraft would deploy parachutes and splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California.

Lockheed Martin, the Orion spacecraft's prime contractor, has pushed for such a test flight for more than a year. But uncertainty about NASA's budget delayed the agency's commitment to the flight until this month, pushing the uncrewed mission's launch date from mid-2013 to early 2014.

Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion program manager, said a firm contract for a launch vehicle is the "long pole" in the schedule driving the launch date.

Lockheed Martin is responsible for procuring a rocket, but managers expect to issue a sole-source award to United Launch Alliance for a Delta 4-Heavy rocket. It's the only U.S. launch vehicle capable of sending Orion to a high enough orbit to generate the re-entry velocity necessary for the test.

"In the United States, there are only two existing launch vehicles that could fly us, and only one could really do the mission objectives. Because of that, we don't have to put out a [request for proposals]. We can just go out and buy a Delta 4-Heavy," said John Karas, vice president and general manager for human spaceflight at Lockheed Martin.

"Atlas 5, in its current form, just isn't big enough to lift all of Orion and do all the missions we want," Karas said. "On a Delta 4, we can lift all the crew module, and some of the service module, and send it 5,000 miles in a highly elliptical orbit and screaming back in like a deep space mission return."

NASA officials say a Delta 4-Heavy rocket costs about $370 million.

File photo of a Delta 4-Heavy rocket. Credit: Pat Corkery/United Launch Alliance
"A Delta price isn't that big for all the science we'll get and the technology input we'll get," Karas said. "If we flew a smaller rocket, we wouldn't be able to get all the velocity we want. We're actually going to test our skip re-entry that we'll do coming back from the moon for a lot more crossrange. We wouldn't do the skip re-entry mission, but we'd come in at angles and actually test lift over drag. If we didn't have a bigger rocket, we couldn't test that."

Orion will circle Earth twice during the test flight, which is expected to last about six hours.

The capsule will use the Delta 4's upper stage to fine tune its re-entry angle before separating for the fiery plunge back into the atmosphere.

Geyer said the test flight will retire significant risk from the spacecraft well before it's ever used to transport human crews to and from deep space.

"If I have any problems, either in the design or getting ready, I'll still have time to fix them," Geyer said. "If you find your problems late, then everyone else is waiting for you, and it gets pretty expensive."

The Orion will be filled with instrumentation to measure how the spacecraft reacts to the flight, especially its heat shield and recovery parachutes, according to Geyer. The test will address the most significant risks to crew survivability on an exploration mission, NASA said.

It will lift off with a launch abort system tower and its backshell heat-resistant tiles will be black because that color's heat properties are better known, according to Bill Johns, Lockheed Martin's chief engineer for the Orion program.

Future long-duration flights will use an all-white Orion spacecraft.

"It will be a lot of fun," Geyer said. "Nothing like a flight test to get people motivated, so it helps a lot. It drives a lot of design decisions. When you have a test coming up quick, you have to make decisions."

Initially started under the now-canceled Constellation moon program, the Orion vehicle has been in development since 2006. The Obama administration and Congress decided to recycle the Orion in a new exploration program aimed at human expeditions to asteroids and eventually Mars.

A view of Orion's elliptical orbit during the EFT-1 mission in early 2014. Credit: NASA
The Orion spaceship is also called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle by NASA. The 2014 mission is known as Exploration Flight Test-1, or EFT-1.

A ground test article of the Orion spacecraft is complete and undergoing testing at Lockheed Martin's facility in Denver. The second full-up Orion is under construction in New Orleans and will ship to the Kennedy Space Center as soon as March for final assembly, testing and launch preparations.

The Florida spaceport's Operations and Checkout Building will the home of Orion assembly. KSC's canister rotation facility will be used to prepare the Orion launch abort system.

Astronauts are not slated to fly aboard an Orion craft until 2021, when the space agency tentatively plans to send a crew on a flight to loop around the moon.

NASA hopes to get funding to advance the flight as early as 2019, but that's far from assured given ongoing budget battles in the federal government.

Two Orion capsules would fly unmanned before NASA commits astronauts to a mission. After the 2014 test flight on the Delta 4-Heavy rocket, another Orion would blast off on NASA's heavy-lift Space Launch System at the end of 2017.

In between those missions, an Orion will be bolted atop the first stage of a decommissioned Peacekeeper missile to simulate an abort during the most strenuous part of a launch, when the rocket passes through the speed of sound and reaches a point called Max-Q, or maximum aerodynamic pressure.

The Orion ground test article looks much like the spacecraft will look when it flies on an orbital test flight in 2014. Credit: Lockheed Martin
Called an ascent abort, the test would demonstrate Orion's ability to safely whisk a crew away from a failing rocket.

NASA successfully completed a pad abort test in 2010, showing Orion can fire solid-fueled rockets to boost the capsule away from a launch vehicle still on the ground. There will not be another pad abort test for Orion, according to Geyer.

"The two stressing cases were the pad abort because you've got to get up and away fast, and then transsonic because of controllability issues," Geyer said.

Gerstenmaier and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, acting on Geyer's recommendation, selected the EFT-1 orbital test mission to go first in Orion's flight sequence.

Officials expect to save money by reusing the Orion spacecraft from the EFT-1 mission for the ascent abort demo, which is due to occur at Cape Canaveral in 2015 or 2016 in the current schedule.

Although NASA has invested five years and more than $5 billion into the Orion program to date, its primary launch vehicle is still on the drawing board.

NASA envisions the Space Launch System as the workhorse rocket for human exploration. At first, it will be capable of hauling 70 metric tons of cargo into low Earth orbit, but upgrades will later raise its capacity to 130 metric tons.

The agency unveiled the design of the SLS in September, announcing it will initially consist of a hydrogen-fueled core powered by three space shuttle main engines, two strap-on five-segment solid rocket boosters, and a cryogenic upper stage with a J-2X engine. The design capitalizes on technology from the shuttle, Constellation and Apollo programs, but full-scale development is just now getting started.