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Fix in the Works for Cracked Orion Crew Module

NASA's Orion crew module. Credit: NASA photo

WASHINGTON — As NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) made official their agreement to use a European service module on the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle’s second mission, a NASA official offered new details about a fix necessary for the deep-space capsule’s first mission.

The fix, intended to more evenly distribute pressure loads across the Lockheed Martin-built Orion crew module, was deemed necessary after the craft’s aft bulkhead cracked during a test at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in early November. Cracks in the hardware, which is slated to fly to Earth orbit in 2014, were discovered after a pressure-proof test in which Orion was subjected to stresses greater than those it is expected to encounter during missions.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver, is repairing — not remanufacturing — the damaged crew module. The fix will come in the form of a doubler: “a piece of metal that kind of looks like a fan,” Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion project manager, said during a Jan. 16 press conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “There might be two of these,” Geyer said. The doubler, or doublers, would “bridge over those cracks to distribute the load to avoid issues on orbit.”

Whether the fix works will not be known until mid-February, when the crew module is again scheduled for load testing at Kennedy, Geyer said. The next big Orion subsystem milestone after that is slated for the spring, when avionics software is scheduled for testing at Lockheed’s Denver facility. An integrated avionics package will be powered up for the first time in the summer. Geyer said Lockheed plans to deliver the finished Orion crew module to launch services provider United Launch Alliance “toward the end of the year.”

In the 2014 mission, officially known as Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1, the Orion crew module will be sent to space for the first time. The craft will be lofted, then sent plunging back into the atmosphere at about 80 percent of the velocity it would reach on a return from lunar space. The mission will be a stress-test for key systems such as the craft’s avionics package and heat shield. Lockheed will manage the mission and NASA will purchase the resulting data from the company.

No European hardware will fly on the EFT-1, Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said during the Jan. 16 press conference.

EFT-1 is scheduled to launch aboard a Delta 4 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Delta 4 is presently grounded while United Launch Alliance and the U.S. Air Force conduct separate investigations into the underperformance of the rocket’s Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne-built RL-10 upper stage during what was otherwise a successful GPS satellite launch in October. ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said earlier this month that tests would continue at least “over the next couple of months.”

To pay for EFT-1’s Delta 4, NASA has added $375 million to Lockheed’s $6.23 billion Orion contract. Delta 4 is not Orion’s intended carrier rocket. NASA is building the heavy-lift Space Launch System to send Orion on excursions to lunar space in 2017 and 2021. Only the 2021 mission will be crewed.

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