A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket stands on the launch pad today, marking a critical and historic milestone of NASA’s plan to launch the first Orion spacecraft later this year. Overnight, workers from Delta IV manufacturer United Launch Alliance rolled the massive three-core booster – minus the upper stage and Orion – from the Horizontal Integration Facility and lifted it onto the pad at Space Launch Complex 37 this morning. Getting the vehicle to the launch pad represents a key event during preparations for the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), currently targeted to liftoff on December 4.
“This is a tremendous milestone and gets us one step closer to our launch later this year,” said Tony Taliancich, ULA’s director of East Coast Launch Operations. “The team has worked extremely hard to ensure this vehicle is processed with the utmost attention to detail and focus on mission success.”
After it was moved to the launch pad in the overnight darkness, the rocket was raised from a horizontal position and placed on the launch pad for final processing, testing and checkout. Over the coming days and weeks, the team will conduct a countdown rehearsal that includes fully powering up the booster and loading the tanks with fuel and oxidizer.
After the “Wet Dress Rehearsal”, as it is called, Orion, built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin, will be moved to the pad and placed on top of the Delta IV rocket in mid-November. Last Sunday, the spacecraft was moved Sunday out of the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at Kennedy Space Center.
“We’ve been working toward this launch for months, and we’re in the final stretch,” said Kennedy Director Bob Cabana. “Orion is almost complete and the rocket that will send it into space is on the launch pad. We’re 64 days away from taking the next step in deep-space exploration.”
Orion now is ready for the installation of its last component — the launch abort system. This system is designed to protect astronauts if a problem arises during launch by pulling the spacecraft away from the failing rocket. During the uncrewed December flight, the jettison motor, which separates the launch abort system from the crew module in both normal operations and in an emergency, will be tested. The abort motors, which would carry the spacecraft away from the rocket, will be inert.
Once the launch abort system is stacked on the completed crew and service modules, and the three systems are tested together, the Orion spacecraft will be considered complete. It then will wait inside the launch abort system facility until the Delta IV Heavy rocket is ready for its integration.
Orion will be launched aboard a Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle. this variant of the Delta IV family features a center Common Booster Core along with two nearly-identical strap-on CBC’s. Each Common Booster Core is powered by a single RS-68A liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine producing more than 700,000 pounds of thrust. A single RL10 liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine powers the second stage. ULA constructed the Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle in Decatur, Alabama.
“The Delta IV Heavy is the world’s most powerful launch vehicle flying today, and we are excited to be supporting our customer for this critical flight test to collect data and reduce overall mission risks and costs for the program,” said Taliancich.
Following launch, the Delta IV Heavy will send Orion 3,600 miles above Earth to test the spacecraft’s systems most critical to crew safety. This is about 15 times higher than the orbit of the International Space Station and the farthest NASA will have flown a man-rated spacecraft since the Apollo program.
After orbiting Earth twice, Orion will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour, generating temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, before it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean. By flying Orion out to those distances, NASA will be able to see how Orion performs in and returns from deep space journeys.
Orion is being built to send humans farther than ever before, including to an asteroid and Mars. Although the spacecraft will be uncrewed during its December flight, the crew module will be used to transport astronauts safely to and from space on future missions. Orion will provide living quarters for up to 21 days, while longer missions will incorporate an additional habitat to provide extra space.
For information about Orion and its first flight, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/orion
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