NASA'S Orion Program: Hardware Progresses, Challenges Ahead
A concept image of Ares I crew launch vehicle.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado - The future of NASA's exploration agenda in a post-space shuttle world - the Orion spacecraft and Ares boosters - is on target as it moves from contractor blueprints to real hardware.
Still, challenges remain - particularly in maintaining critical workforce skills in the transition between shuttle and Orion programs.
NASA's Constellation Program - the umbrella name for the space agency's Moon, Mars and beyond visionary agenda - was kick started by U.S. President George W. Bush in January 2004.
"We have a road map," said Doug Cooke, NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator, Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, speaking here at the 23rd National Space Symposium staged by the Space Foundation. Given the intervening three years, NASA and its industrial partners "have collectively made a tremendous amount of progress," he said.
Areas of common interest
Cooke observed that engine test stands and wind tunnels are active in helping to shape the Orion spacecraft program that will tote six people to the International Space Station, as well as carry crews back to the Moon, then onward to Mars.
"We have a lot of progress underway in testing hardware," Cooke said. Furthermore, the role of other nations as well as entrepreneurs in creating a global strategy for exploring the Moon is coming together, he noted.
"We're looking for areas of common interest," Cooke explained.
Cooke said shuttle decisions on flight hardware production have been made that are not reversible. "We are shutting things down."
By end of this calendar year, all components of Orion and its Ares booster will be on contract, Cooke said.
Joining Cooke on a panel of experts, John Karas, Vice President & General Manager, Human Space Flight, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company detailed the Orion program. The company was selected by NASA to build the multi-purpose spacecraft.
Karas highlighted the company's strategy to keep Orion on cost and schedule, and to keep the crew safe. Queried about the toughest tasks ahead, he highlighted the integration of contractor hardware matched to NASA requirements and the need for all to communicate with each other - as well as with outside customers, like the Congress and the public.
From a hardware perspective, Karas said a "critical path" item is Orion's launch abort system. It is, essentially, a three stage rocket, a "unique system unto itself," he said, with a number of challenging requirements to provide full abort profiles to keep the crew safe if the Ares rocket encounters problems.
Michael Kahn, Vice President, Space Launch Systems, ATK Launch Systems, said progress is being made on the Ares I and Ares V designs. Both boosters leverage shuttle gear. The Ares I makes use of a five-segment solid rocket booster, with aspects of the shuttle program-derived equipment undergoing upgrading and modification to handle the job of boosting the piloted Orion craft, he said.
Upcoming for the Ares I booster, Kahn said, are sets of rigorous and key tests, including the booster's test flight in 2009.
"We're plugging along very well and staying on schedule," Kahn said.
Former shuttle astronaut, Richard Covey, USAF (Retired), now Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer for United Space Alliance, LLC flagged the need to keep an eye on the need for "significantly reduced" operations costs for Orion contrasted to today's space shuttle prep and fly expenses.
Covey said his company is creating a suite of new computer tools to simplify Orion/Constellation operations. He did spotlight workforce uncertainty in the transition of skills from shuttle to Orion operations.
A reduced operations tempo, Covey said, will mean less people involved in getting Orion launched. However, in building toward that capability, a strong and sizeable engineering workforce will be necessary, he said.
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