U.S. Reenters Manned Space Flight

Even though he isn’t old enough to talk, Larry Price’s grandson speaks for many Americans. As he watched the recent Orion spacecraft liftoff, the toddler signed his equivalent of “more”.

As the deputy program director for Lockheed Martin, and the prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft program, Price wants more manned spaceflight, too. He has devoted much of his working life to helping the United States return to space. He has been part of the team since 2004, and prior to that he worked on other projects including the cancelled X-38 International Space Station lifeboat.

Launched December 5th from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the Orion capsule—designed in PTC Creo—flew to space with the help of the Delta IV Heavy rocket. The four hour 24-minute test flight was meant to test the capsule’s systems in a live environment. The two highly elliptical orbits designed to give the spacecraft a real life workout and send it through the Van Allen radiation belt to test the onboard gear.

“The exploration flight test was designed around maximizing velocity and getting the vehicle as far away from the Earth as possible with existing launch systems,” Price says.

The Orion is the first spacecraft built for humans that has flown beyond low Earth orbit in more than 40 years. The spacecraft is also the first capsule built by NASA designed to transport humans to interplanetary destinations beyond low Earth orbit, such as asteroids, the moon and eventually Mars, and return them safely back to Earth.

Spaceflight has come a long way from the days of the Apollo program, or even the shuttle. Today’s smart phone has more processing power than the computers onboard back then.

The power of technology available today compared to the 1960s is just staggering, Price says. NASA had to invent much of the technology at that time. Now, there are off-the-shelf systems that can be adapted for space flight, such as the guidance system derived from one used in commercial airliners.

“We upgraded the equipment so it could operate in the harsh environment of space and operate faster than it needs to for a commercial airliner, because the spacecraft comes into the Earth entry interface at 20,000 miles per hour,” Price says.

When Apollo 13 radioed, “Houston, we have a problem,” ground-based engineers scrambled to replicate the available gear on board the capsule to help design a solution. Now, there’s a collaborative human immersion lab in Denver that functions like a virtual reality simulator, where the spacecraft design exists as a 3D digital model.

“In this environment you can look through goggles and think you’re working in the spacecraft,” Price says. “And you can put that environment anywhere in the world.”

Also, there’s an electronics lab that duplicates the flight electronics and software.

“If there’s an anomaly, you can infuse that anomaly into the lab and run tests cases to see how you would remediate it,” Price says.

During Apollo launches, rooms of people calculated potential trajectories with mechanical adding machines. On the Orion launch, the orbital mechanics team calculated 500 potential trajectories each second during the booster rocket’s 2.5-minute burn.

Another difference is the plethora of sensors and cameras that captured every aspect of the test flight. Some 1,200 onboard sensors captured data about everything from the effects of space radiation on the avionics to the environment inside the crew cabin.

On reentry, a UAV with a camera tracked the flight to splashdown in the Pacific. Two helicopters with cameras configured to monitor the temperature of the heat shields targeted the capsule at 60,000 feet and 10,000 miles per hour and tracked it to the surface of the ocean off the coast of Baja, California.

There were myriad cameras on the capsule, inside and outside. One camera was mounted inside the docking hatch window, pointed outside the craft. During the descent through the atmosphere, the team on the ground could see the superheated air form plasma around the spacecraft.

“It looks like a Hollywood movie wormhole, the plasma shifts around the vehicle like flames,” Price says.

The post-flight analysis will include synching the video of the plasma to the data from firing the reaction system control jets that steer the capsule.

“You can see the glow from the firing and see how it adjusts the plasma in the wake of the vehicle because of the flow disturbance from firing the jets,” Price says.

Engineers will compare the condition of the ablative heat shield with the data from the instruments to connect the predicted performance models with actual outcome of the shield that protected the spacecraft as it blazed through the atmosphere.

“We will update the models so we can predict the future a lot more accurately,” Price says.

Next for the capsule is an ascent abort test, which will use three powerful motors capable of pulling the capsule and crew a mile up and a mile away from an emergency on the launch pad.

The first manned missions with the Orion system are expected to blast off in the early 2020s, with a manned Mars mission slated for 2030.

With a successful test flight on the books, Price hopes his grandson and the throngs of people who watched the launch will get to see their wish of America’s return to manned deep-space flight come true.

“It was a very worthwhile test, it says we’re back in human space flight,” he says. “We have a vehicle designed to go beyond low Earth orbit, and it worked.”

Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin/United Launch Alliance