Planners in NASA’s human exploration and operations (HEO) missions directorate are studying whether it would be possible and worthwhile to expand the first three planned tests of the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle, including the first flight with a crew, to evaluate the capsule’s performance beyond low Earth orbit.

Architecture studies of potential deep-space missions using Orion also are being used to consider ways to use the big capsule to collect data on how it would perform beyond low Earth orbit, in lunar flyaround like the Apollo 8 mission, and perhaps early flights to the Earth-Moon lagrangian points under discussion as destinations where human explorers could prepare for missions to asteroids and eventually Mars and its moons, according to HEO Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier.

“Could we go around a lagrangian point, and maybe transition from one lagrangian point to another?” Gerstenmaier asked in an interview with Aviation Week. “What’s the advantage to us to do that? Does that help us with anything? So we’re starting to flesh out now are there other objectives that we can add to those flights.

Those objectives could include measuring radiation and acceleration loads in the crew compartment as an aid to future design work. That testing could begin as early as an unmanned re-entry test planned for 2014, and continue with the first two flight tests of the full-up Orion vehicle in 2017 and 2021. The second of those flights is scheduled to carry a crew.

“We have certain objectives that we need to accomplish from a test standpoint,” Gerstenmaier noted. “We have to do certain profiles on certain things. But could we expand those potential test missions to do more?”

'Go pretty high'

The initial test mission will be designed to gauge how well the Orion thermal protection system can withstand the heat of a high-speed return from the Moon or beyond, and will send a test vehicle on a high-apogee trajectory for a faster re-entry into the atmosphere.

“We’re going to go pretty high to reaccelerate back into the Earth’s atmosphere, so we could put radiation monitors inside the capsule,” Gerstenmaier said. “We have some little small ones, they look like USB drives, like thumb drives, and you can put those all around on the inside of the structure of Orion. So then we can actually get Orion’s performance , how much it actually attenuates radiation, because it will actually be above the Van Allen belts.”

Similarly, accelerometers could be added to the crew seats on later flights to measure G-loads, he said. The level of extra instrumentation would have to be balanced against the complexity and cost they would add to a give test.

“We’re saying ‘here’s our standard test objectives, but now if we look at how we’re going to use these vehicles in the future, what data could we capture off these early test flights that would help us advance quicker into operational type missions?” he asked.