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Florida workforce stands ready for Orion assembly

Posted: February 21, 2012

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A team of former space shuttle technicians at the Kennedy Space Center is about to start working on NASA's first Orion spaceship, outfitting the prototype capsule for a test flight in Earth orbit as early as late 2013.

An Orion ground test article and mock launch abort system undergo environmental testing at Lockheed Martin's facility in Denver. The first flight article is finishing construction in Louisiana and will immediately be shipped to Florida for pre-launch processing for a test mission in late 2013 or early 2014. Credit: Lockheed Martin Corp.
Now under construction in Louisiana, the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle will be shipped to Florida in May, when engineers will start crafting the capsule into a flight-ready spacecraft.

Inside the space center's Operations and Checkout Building, technicians will add the Orion craft's heat shield, flight computers and avionics boxes. Lockheed Martin Corp., Orion's prime contractor, selected the O&C Building for final assembly of the spacecraft.

Engineers in Florida will start receiving flight hardware for the first space-bound Orion as soon as March, as components for the craft's service module arrive at the space center. A structural mock-up of the service module will fly on the first mission in 2013 or 2014.

Jim Kemp, Lockheed Martin's director for Orion assembly, testing and launch operations, said about 150 employees now work on the program at KSC. The number is expected to grow to about 188 workers later this year, he said.

The expansion of work this spring will lead to around-the-clock shifts in the O&C Building beginning by June, Kemp said.

Up to 400 permanent positions will be available by 2014 as Orion production ramps up ahead of another unmanned flight in 2017, which will launch another spacecraft on a mission around the moon and back to Earth. Orion's first crewed voyage is set for 2021, on another circumlunar flight.

The 2017 and 2021 missions, along with later flights, will lift off from Florida on the heavy-lift Space Launch System, a gargantuan booster under development by NASA.

Visiting the Florida space center Friday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the start of Orion assembly at KSC will help sustain skilled jobs for aerospace workers on the Space Coast.

"The quicker we can start assembling and building vehicles here, the better it's going to be for the economic viability of this community, and for the spirit of the people," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

According to Kemp, much of the Orion workforce will come from United Space Alliance, NASA's chief space shuttle contractor.

"It is significant that we're actually fabricating the vehicle here in Florida," Kemp said. "That was part of an affordability strategy from day one on Orion. If you can take all the small pieces and get them here, instead of the large chunks, build the vehicle here and launch it from here, logistically, you can save a lot of money, and you've got the workforce in place from the shuttle than you can transition a lot more work content to at the launch site."

Before it arrives in Florida, the Orion crew module's pressure vessel is welded together at Lockheed Martin's Michoud facility, located in New Orleans. Lockheed Martin built the space shuttle's external fuel tanks in Michoud.

If the Orion spacecraft is shipped to KSC in May, it will keep the program on track for its first mission in space.

Artist's concept of the Orion spacecraft separating from the second stage of a Delta 4 rocket in orbit. Credit: NASA
Because it is the first time engineers will prepare an Orion spacecraft for launch, NASA expects the orbital test flight to blast off some time in early 2014, accounting for minor snags and delays.

But Lockheed Martin is trying to secure a launch opportunity as soon as October 2013. The earlier launch would put crucial design data in the hands of engineers sooner and give the company extra time to refurbish the Orion capsule for another test flight in 2016.

Lockheed Martin is overseeing the test for NASA, and the aerospace firm is in the final stages of negotiating a launch slot on a Delta 4-Heavy rocket, the most powerful launcher in the U.S. inventory today. United Launch Alliance, a company jointly-owned by Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin, operates the Delta 4 rocket.

"Lockheed is actually covering the operations of the flight, the build of the flight, and from a NASA perspective, we're essentially buying the flight data. Lockheed will actually contract with ULA for that vehicle," said Scott Wilson, NASA's Orion production manager.

"Earlier than [October 2013] isn't in our baseline, given the funding constraints that we're dealing with," Kemp said. "That October date is what we would prefer, so that we can then get on with our follow-on program because we're going to reuse that vehicle to fly our ascent abort test afterward. So the sooner we can fly that test mission, the sooner we can set up for this ascent abort test and keep the program moving."

The initial orbital test flight will launch the Orion capsule into an elliptical orbit up to 4,000 nautical miles above Earth, high enough to duplicate the high-speed re-entry the crew module will experience on returns from deep space missions to the moon or asteroids.

The mission will test Orion's heat shield, parachutes, flight computers and other systems.

The ascent abort will check Orion's robustness during an emergency at the most dynamic moment of launch, when aerodynamic forces exert the most pressure on the spacecraft. Orion's abort system must be capable of pulling the spaceship and its crew to safety during all phases of launch.

In a cost-saving measure, NASA and Lockheed Martin will use the same Orion spacecraft on the orbital test flight, named Exploration Flight Test 1, and the ascent abort.

NASA leadership last year decided to place orbital test flight first in the Orion manifest, fearing the ascent abort will stress the spacecraft beyond its engineering specifications.

"You don't want to risk your big orbital flight on a vehicle that has high miles, so to speak," Kemp said.