Although NASA’s decision last decade to return to the conventional cone-shaped crew capsule for future space missions was viewed by some as a retrograde step, the current development work underway shows the next-generation vehicles are not your father’s Apollo Command Module.
Though the Lockheed Martin Orion crew exploration capsule shares the basic frustrum, or truncated cone, shape of Apollo, the similarities to its prestigious forebear are fewer the deeper beneath the skin you get. Some of this can be seen in the first space flight test vehicle which has been shipped from NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to the Kennedy Space Center. Here it will undergo final assembly with the addition of external cladding, systems and thermal protection system (TPS), as well as final checkout.
The Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) Orion is due to be launched by a Delta IV Heavy for NASA's unmanned test mission in 2014. NASA expects the flight to include two orbits reaching an altitude of more than 3,600 miles. These will culminate in a high speed return at a velocity of around 25,000 miles per hour simulating 85% of a lunar re-entry velocity. This is designed to expose the TPS to temperatures up to 4,000 degrees F. Including TPS, the flight will check out 11 of the top 16 high-risk technology items for future Mars and Moon missions.
Beyond the EFT-1 check out flight further tests envisaged include a sub-orbital flight in 2015 and a full integrated NASA Space Launch System flight test in 2017, likely involving a fly-by of the Moon.
Meanwhile, NASA is conducting key vacuum tests on the Alliant Techsystems (ATK)-built composite module that could form the basis for future crew transport to Earth orbit.
Tests on the ATK-made Composite Crew Module (CCM) are designed to test how the composite structure will react in a simulated space environment. For the test, the chamber is sealed and purged, and the crew module is filled with helium gas to see if any leaks occur as pressure increases. Work is being performed under the NASA Langley-led CCM project and includes engineers from Marshall as well as Goddard Space Flight Center, Kennedy Space Center and Boeing. Made at the company’s site in Iuka, Mass, the capsule is made from bonded carbon fiber epoxy and aluminum honeycomb core. The same basic design has been selected by ATK for a combined Liberty bid with Astrium and Lockheed Martin for the third phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, known as Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap). If selected, ATK says the system could be tested in 2014 with the first crewed test mission anticipated as early as 2015.