peacekeeper missile

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T + 256 days (August 17, 2015)

Goodbye, Orion - capsule leaves Kennedy Space Center.

After more than eight months of post-flight processing, the Orion capsule that flew Exploration Flight Test 1 in December, 2014, has left Kennedy Space Center. The spacecraft began a cross-country trip to Colorado on Monday, August 17.

Lockheed Martin and NASA engineers have spent the months following the historic mission disassembling the capsule for inspection, testing its various components to see how they withstood flight above the Earth’s twin radiation belts, and seeing what could be improved for the third Orion flight capsule slated to fly on Exploration Mission 2.

In March, Orion’s heat shield was sent to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where the Avcoat material that protected the capsule during reentry was stripped away. It ultimately was transported to Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where it will be attached to a boilerplate Orion capsule for water impact testing.

The spacecraft’s backshell - the black tile exterior that protected the capsule - was removed and inspected, with some panels going on display across the country. 

Orion’s departure from Kennedy Space Center marks the completion of over three years of work for Kennedy’s Orion teams. The capsule first arrived in June 2012 as nothing more than a pressure vessel from the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Workers spent 18 months integrating the remainder of Orion’s components inside the Operations and Checkout facility, which will be the final assembly area for all future space-bound Orion capsules. Following a brief two-week period following EFT-1 where the capsule was driven across the country from San Diego to Florida, Orion has sent the majority of its life at the Florida spaceport.

Now the capsule is being sent to Lockheed Martin’s primary spacecraft facility near Denver, Colorado, where it will undergo direct field acoustic testing. For these tests, several electro-dynamic speakers will be set up in an array around all sides of the spacecraft. This will provide easily-controllable and uniform acoustic waves which engineers will use to test the capsule’s structure.

These tests are being performed as engineers prepare the next major milestone in Orion’s life - Ascent Abort 2. AA2 follows a similar flight pattern to the Little Joe series of tests that occurred as part of the Mercury and Apollo programs in the early 1960′s. They validated the Launch Escape Systems viability during flight by launching a capsule and its LES into the atmosphere, where the escape motors took over. Orion has already completed LES tests on the ground, and AA2 will be the first test performed in flight. A Peacekeeper missile will be converted for use with the Orion/LES stack mated above the missile’s first stage.

Catch up with Orion’s post-flight disassembly, as well as recapping its historic inaugural flight into space, by checking out our EFT-1 archive here.

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T+83 days (Wednesday, 25 February 2015)

Last week, Lockheed Martin engineers at Kennedy Space Center removed Orion’s heatshield. Orion is slowly being disassembled for analysis and inspection following December’s Exploration Flight Test-1.

The heatshield will be shipped to Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for final analysis and laser inspection before the used ablative material will be removed. The material has been burned black by Orion’s fiery reentry December 5, and protected the capsule against 4,000 degree temperatures.

Once the heatshield has been stripped to its superstructure, it will make one final trip to Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. There, it will participate in water impact tests before being retired from use.

The capsule itself will remain at Kennedy for further disassembly. Once completed, engineers will begin to prepare the spacecraft for its second and final mission on Ascent Abort Test-2, scheduled for 2018. AA-2 will test Orion’s Launch Abort System during simulated emergency conditions after launch. The Orion/LAS combination will be launched into the atmosphere on a converted Peacekeeper missile, where the LAS will be activated. Orion will be ripped away and recovered in the Atlantic ocean. 

Historically, AA2 is similar to the Little Joe tests of the Mercury and Apollo programs, which served to validate their respective Launch Abort Systems.