Dec 072014
View from Orion's unpiloted flight test (Image Credit: NASA Television)

Next Chapter to Mars: Orion

Science, Technology, and Exploration all feed NASA's Journey to Mars efforts (Image Credit: NASA)

Science, Technology, and Exploration all feed NASA’s Journey to Mars efforts (Image Credit: NASA)

Probably one of the most exciting events for Mars this week didn’t happen on Mars. The successful launch, orbit, and splashdown landing of NASA’s Orion spacecraft secured the next new step toward sending manned crews on the Journey to Mars. Decades have gone by since the golden age of space exploration when, in its heyday, there were launches nearly every few months in the Apollo era. And when the shuttles were retired, space exploration hit a lull that seemed to worry and disappoint some people. Orion’s Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), conducted on December 5, 2014, re-establishes a space program that can leave Earth’s orbit.

“We as a species are meant to press humanity further into the solar system and this is a first step,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate. “What a tremendous team effort.”

Significant features of the Orion project tested very successfully on this first unmanned flight. The crew capsule withstood the pressures of launch, assent, two passes through the Van Allen belts annd their high radiation, plus surviving the enormous heat generated upon return through the atmosphere and the pressures of the splash down.

Engineers now have their hands full with testing data and sensor readings to evaluate the flight. The results will better inform the teams preparing for the next flight, Exploration Mission-1, which is scheduled to go around the moon.

If you missed the launch, here are some of the highlights.


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Dec 052014
A conceptual model of the Team Ares radiation experiment.
Orion Exploration Design Challenge Winning Team from Hampton,Va NASA’s Administrator, Charles Bolden (left), President/CEO of Lockheed Martin, Marillyn Hewson (right), and astronaut Rex Walheim (back row) pose for a group photo with the winning high school team in the Exploration Design Challenge. Team ARES from the Governors School for Science and Technology in Hampton, Va. won the challenge with their radiation shield design, which was built and flown aboard the Orion/EFT-1. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Orion Exploration Design Challenge Winning Team from Hampton,Va
NASA’s Administrator, Charles Bolden (left), President/CEO of Lockheed Martin, Marillyn Hewson (right), and astronaut Rex Walheim (back row) pose for a group photo with the winning high school team in the Exploration Design Challenge. Team ARES from the Governors School for Science and Technology in Hampton, Va. won the challenge with their radiation shield design, which was built and flown aboard the Orion/EFT-1. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

by Gene Turnbow, Station Manager

The test flight of the unmanned Orion spacecraft has just successfully splashed down at this writing. Eventually Orion’s crew module will contain living, breathing astronauts, so one of the things being tested is how well that module will protect its occupants from the intense radiation in the Van Allen belt that surrounds the Earth.

Starting in March of 2013, a year-long competition called the Exploration Design Challenge was begun among high schools (there were also competitions for middle schools and elementary schools) around the world to engage students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by inviting them  help tackle one of the most significant dangers of human space flight: radiation exposure.

Evaluators from NASA, Lockheed Martin, and the National Institute of Aerospace have selected Team ARES from the Governor’s School for Science and Technology in Hampton, Virginia, as the winner of the Exploration Design Challenge. The winner was chosen from a group of five finalist teams announced in March 2014.

“This is a great day for Team ARES. You have done a remarkable job,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who helped announce the winning team. “I really want to congratulate all five of our finalists. You are outstanding examples of the power of American innovation. Your passion for discovery and the creative ideas you have brought forward have made us think and have helped us take a fresh look at a very challenging problem on our Path to Mars.”

Team ARES produced a design that received the highest radiation protection score during an online simulation of radiation exposure. They also did additional research on their own, provided extra information about the materials their design uses and estimated the cost for their experiment. Their test module, a small cube mounted inside the Orion spacecraft crew module, contains a set of radiation sensors. These will show how effective their idea for radiation shielding is, compared to the computer simulation. Team ARES was brought to Kennedy Space Center in Florida by Lockheed Martin, the makers of the Orion spacecraft, so that they could watch their experiment launch into space.

A conceptual model of the Team Ares radiation experiment.

A conceptual model of the Team Ares radiation experiment.

The first manned use of the Orion spacecraft is planned to take a new team of astronauts to the Moon. After that, they hope to take it to Mars. Limiting factors for the longer journey to Mars are not only the intense radiation they will encounter when they reach Mars, due to its nearly complete lack of a protective magnetosphere, but the design of the crew module itself. The trip to the Red Planet will take something around six months, one way. That’s a long time to be sitting in one place without even being able to stand up and stretch your legs.

Of the entire launch vehicle, only the crew module will be returning to Earth, to splash down in the Pacific Ocean for recovery. See our main article on Orion’s launch for the full report.

Headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, Lockheed Martin is a global security and aerospace company that employs approximately 113,000 people worldwide and is principally engaged in the research, design, development, manufacture, integration and sustainment of advanced technology systems, products and services.

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Dec 052014
Orion Liftoff

Orion Liftoffby Nur Hussein, staff writer

After a frustrating set of circumstances leading to a scrubbed attempt yesterday, we witnessed, this morning, the successful launch of the first flight of NASA’s newest spacecraft: the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. The mission, designated Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), is the un-crewed first test of the newly commissioned spacecraft before planned crewed flights to the moon and to Mars. Although wind was a major problem yesterday, it seems that today, while it was still windy, the windspeed was below safety thresholds. At the scheduled time of 7:05 a.m. EST, the craft lifted off into space. We wait with bated breath as the rocket carrying the Orion craft orbits the Earth, and is scheduled to return at 11:29 a.m. EST with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

When NASA retired the venerated space shuttles three years ago, it felt as though the United States had stumbled in the international space race. After all, the space shuttles were the first reusable spacecraft, and with no replacement immediately available, the future of American crewed space exploration seemed a bit uncertain. Since the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis, on 21 July 2011, there have been no crewed launches into space from American soil (American trips to the ISS relied on Russian launch facilities). However, shortly before the retirement of the shuttles, NASA announced the Orion project with its goal to construct a reusable spacecraft for the most ambitious space mission yet: deep-space crewed voyages.

The Orion craft was developed from technologies created during the Constellation space program which ran from 2005 to 2009. The Constellation project was ultimately cancelled, but the technology it produced became the basis for the Orion mission now. Orion’s ultimate mission is to first return to the moon on a crewed mission, then if successful, send a crewed mission to Mars.

Orion’s liftoff weight on Earth of the entire spacecraft was 16,850 pounds. The spacecraft consists of three modules:

  1. The Launch Abort System: This is the massive spindle-like structure above the craft. It has rockets that can yank the attached Crew Module to safety in the event of a launch failure.
  2. The Crew Module: This module is 16.5 feet wide and is made to fit a crew of four, this is where the astronauts will command their ship and stay during the course of crewed missions.
  3. The Service Module: This module is designed to carry the space propulsion systems of Orion, and provide fuel, air, and environmental controls for the Crew Module. However, since these functions are not yet needed for this un-crewed test flight, the Service Module used in Exploration Test Flight 1 will not be the full-fledged one that will be used in future missions.

Orion expandedFor the return trip, Orion’s Crew Module needs to re-enter the atmosphere using a heat shield to prevent it from burning up. Orion’s head shield is fiberglass-phenolic honeycomb assembly on a titanium frame with carbon fiber skin. The 330,000 honeycomb cells are individually injected with an insulation material called Avcoat. The material is injected by hand with a special dispensing gun. However, engineers reviewing the design noticed the Avcoat material was slightly more uneven than expected. As such, they propose a more monolithic design for the next head shield. For the current mission, the existing honeycomb heat shield is sufficient and was used as planned. Once in the atmosphere, it carries an 11-parachute system that will allow it to break its descent and land in the water in the Pacific Ocean. The parachute system had been extensively tested at the Yuma Army Proving Grounds in southwestern Arizona, and according to NASA it has been proven to be extremely reliable.

The purpose of this mission is to test all the major systems of the Orion spacecraft for safety and reliability before a crewed mission is attempted. Orion will orbit the Earth twice and reach apogee at 3,600 miles from Earth during its second orbit, before the Crew Module separates from the Service Module and second stage engines.

The Orion craft is currently its preliminary orbit, the first of two elliptical orbits before it heads back to Earth. After the countdown at the launch pad, the giant Delta IV rockets ignited at 7:05 a.m. EST and it carried the Orion craft upward into space. It sailed upward out into the upper atmosphere, where at 4 minutes, 10 seconds into the launch, the port and starboard rocket boosters separated. At 5 minutes, 40 seconds into the launch, the main engine cut off and 7 seconds later, the central common booster core separated. At 6 minutes, 46 seconds in, the fairing panels (that provide structural support during takeoff) on the service module were jettisoned to reduce weight. At 19 minutes into the flight we had a flawless orbital insertion and Orion is on course.

The Service Module, attached to the second stage engines, will burn up during reentry to Earth, and only the Crew Module with its heat shields will re-enter the atmosphere and splash down into the Pacific Ocean for recovery. A NASA Predator drone named Ikhana will launch from Edwards Air Force Base in California at 2 a.m. PST and fly to the target landing area off the coast of Baja California. When Orion returns. we will hopefully get some spectacular descent and splashdown footage from the drone.

We’ll update this article as news on the re-entry develops, so keep checking back for all the latest!

Update #1: December 5, 2014, 6:35 a.m., PST

Orion finished its first orbit or Earth about 25 minutes ago, and a second stage burn has pushed the craft to a higher altitude, and into an even more elliptical orbit. As Orion nears the Van Allen radiation belts, it shut off the cameras. In this part of the Earth’s surrounding space, there is intense radiation that is captured in place by the Earth’s magnetic field.

There is an onboard device called BIRD (Battery-operated Independent Radiation Detector) which measures radiation levels as it passes through the Van Allen belts. This data will help scientists analyze the radiation hazards that astronauts will be exposed to when passing through this region. They are also monitoring the effects of radiation on the computers and avionics of the craft. Orion has completed its first pass through the Van Allen belt with no immediately observed effects from radiation; the data from BIRD will provide a more complete picture later.

Meanwhile back on Earth, the USS Anchorage, a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship, awaits in the Pacific Ocean waiting for the eventual splashdown and recovery, and Ikhana continues its journey toward the recovery zone.

Update #2: December 5, 2014, 8:35 a.m., PST


At 8:29 a.m. PST, Orion’s crew module has successfully landed in the Pacific Ocean where the USS Anchorage is waiting for its retrieval. After entering the atmosphere, the heat shield protected it from the immense heat from the friction with the Earth’s atmosphere. The module splashed down about 270 miles west of Baja California, about 630 miles southwest of San Diego.

Orion started re-entry at a speed of 420,000 miles per hour. Temperatures reached around 4000 F during re-entry! After it re-entered the atmosphere, it was still travelling at around 300 miles an hour, which had to be slowed to about 20 miles an hour for a safe landing. The complex 11-parachute system slowed its descent, and thus has now splashed down safely off the coast of Baja.

Assisting the USS Anchorage is the USS Salvor, a Safeguard-class rescue and salvage ship. The crew module will be pulled into the well deck of the Anchorage, which can be filled with water so the floating capsule can be pulled in to the ship while it is afloat. Then it will be placed on rubber footings to protect the heat shield on the way back to where it will be taken to San Diego.

The Ikhana drone’s video coverage of the re-entry and splashdown is simply breathtaking! We’ll bring it to you as soon as it’s  available.

This will be the last update to this article.


Dec 042014
Orion EFT1 Logo

Orion EFT1 Logoby Nur Hussein, staff writer

Today was meant to see the scheduled launch of the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), which would send NASA’s shiny new reusable Orion spacecraft on its maiden test flight into space. However, the launch of the Orion craft from Cape Canaveral in Florida failed to proceed within the launch window from 7:05 a.m. EST to 9:44 a.m. EST, after multiple delays. It was supposed to launch as soon as the window opened at 7:05 a.m. EST. The launch was first delayed because there was a boat that wandered into the exclusion area around the cape; it had to be escorted away. Then, after appearing to be good to go at 7:17 a.m. EST, there was yet another delay. The countdown was stopped due to an automated sensor detecting that wind speeds had exceeded the acceptable limit. After getting another go-ahead for launch at 7:55 a.m. EST, once again, an automatic sensor detected winds stronger than the safety limit, and they aborted again. The situation at the Kennedy Space Center still remained optimistic, as the launch window could be extended until 9:44 a.m. EST, if necessary, and they figured there would be plenty of time for adjustment. Alas, this was not to be.

The countdown was put on extended hold, waiting for the winds to subside. During the wait, the core engine temperature was measured to be above range, but secondary measurements indicated all was within acceptable parameters. A new launch time was set for 8:26 a.m. EST and after one final check, they initiated another countdown to launch. However, it was put on hold yet again after a fill and drainage valve did not close on one of the rocket engines. To fix the problem, they cycled all of the fill and drainage valves on the first stage engines five times (that’s right, they turned it off and on again just like on The IT Crowd). With 20 minutes left in the launch window, they disabled the automatic wind monitoring software and switched to manual monitoring, and the launch time was set to the very end of the launch window at 9:44 a.m. EST.

However since the valve resets could not be completed, and the battery life on the camera declined, management felt it was best to abort the launch for today, and re-attempt it tomorrow after 24 hours. It is expected that the same launch window times will be used tomorrow. Hopefully, things go smoothly for NASA on Friday. As for today’s aborted launch, better safe than sorry.


Dec 012014
From Erik Wernquist's short subject, 'Wanderers'.

by Gene Turnbow, Station Manager

Wanderers is an extraordinary short film by Erik Wernquist, and narrated by astronomer Carl Sagan. In a world where so many stories carry a post-apocalyptic theme, we need some reassurance that we perhaps haven’t entirely missed the point of being here. The message in Wanderers shines forth.

For best effect, turn out the lights, put on your best headphones, and watch Wanderers full screen.

Wanderers is a vision of humanity’s expansion into the Solar System, based on scientific ideas and concepts of what our future in space might look like, if it ever happens. The locations depicted in the film are digital recreations of actual places in the Solar System, built from real photos and map data where available. Without any apparent story, other than what you may fill in by yourself, the idea of the film is primarily to show a glimpse of the fantastic and beautiful nature that surrounds us on our neighboring worlds – and above all, how it might appear to us if we were there.

The text is from Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot (a book you should read.)

For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game: none of them lasts forever. It is beyond our powers to predict the future. Catastrophic events have a way of sneaking up on us, of catching us unaware. Your own life, or your band’s, or even your species’ might be owed to a restless few, drawn by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.

Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, spoke for wanderers in all epochs and meridians: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas…”

Maybe it’s a little early. Maybe the time is not quite yet. But those other worlds — promising untold opportunities — beckon.

Silently, they orbit the Sun, waiting.

Watch Wanderers and remember what it was that drew you to science fiction in the first place.

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Nov 262014
In November 2014, NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore installed a 3-D printer made by Made in Space in the Columbus laboratory’s Microgravity Science Glovebox on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV
The 3-D printer on the International Space Station has just fabricated its first part: a cover plate for part of its own mechanism. This marks the first time 3-D printing has ever been attempted in space, and the ISS provides the perfect environment for testing the process. Unfortunately the print head was apparently running a bit hot, and the part stuck to the print tray – hard.

NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Expedition 42 commander, installed the printer on Nov. 17 and printed the first calibration object. Based on those results, the ground control team sent some realignment commands to the printer, and a second calibration test object was printed on Nov 20. The results were conducted the first calibration test print. Based on the test print results, the ground control team sent commands to realign the printer and printed a second calibration test on Nov. 20. On Nov. 24, ground controllers sent the printer the command to make the first printed part: a faceplate of the extruder’s casing. Wilmore removed the part from the printer and took a look the next morning. The part sticking to the tray so hard was the first surprise. Apparently layer adhesion is a lot stronger in microgravity, so they still have some adjustments to make. They’re printing a third calibration object now.

They are finding out how finicky a 3-D printer can be first-hand, and doing it in space is making it that much more interesting a problem. The 3-D printer uses a process formally known as additive manufacturing to heat a relatively low-temperature plastic filament and extrude it one layer at a time to build the part defined in the design file sent to the machine, so we’re guessing it uses the most common filament type already being used in hobbyist 3-d printers, called PLA. This plastic is somewhat softer than styrene, and melts at a much lower temperature. This is a problem for parts that have to hold hot fluids, so there’ll be no making coffee mugs with it, or anything that gets near hot metal parts.

The first object 3-D printed in space, the printhead faceplate, is engraved with names of the organizations that collaborated on this space station technology demonstration: NASA and Made In Space, Inc., the space manufacturing company that worked with NASA to design, build and test the zero-G 3-D printer. Made In Space is located on the campus of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

The printing operations will, for now, be controlled from the ground. The engineers from Made In Space commanded the printer to make the first object while working with controllers at NASA’s Payload Operations Integration Center in Huntsville, Alabama. This is being done to limit crew time required for operations. The objects will be returned to Earth in 2015 for detailed analysis and comparison to control samples made on the ground. The goal is to verify that 3-D printing works the same with or without gravity.

“The operation of the 3-D printer is a transformative moment in space development,” said Aaron Kemmer, chief executive officer of Made In Space. “We’ve built a machine that will provide us with research data needed to develop future 3-D printers for the International Space Station and beyond, revolutionizing space manufacturing. This may change how we approach getting replacement tools and parts to the space station crew, allowing them to be less reliant on supply missions from Earth.”

The eventual goal is to be able to create parts from plastic or metal, reducing the problem of spare parts to one of sending up raw materials for on-station manufacture. 3-D printers that can print using metal instead of plastic do exist, but they naturally require much more power than a plastic printer would.

The first objects built in space will be returned to Earth in 2015 for detailed analysis and comparison to identical ground control samples made on the flight printer after final flight testing earlier this year at, NASA’s Marshall Center prior to launch. The goal of this analysis is to verify that the 3-D printing process works the same in microgravity as it does on Earth.

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