NASA's Orion multipurpose crew vehicle is on a go-slow development path to free funds for near-term agency objectives, but its first full-scale flight test may send it to the Moon.

Even before that 2017 unmanned flight atop the first version of the government-owned heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), a planned 2014 flight test on a Delta IV will characterize radiation levels and cabin-seat g-loading for deep-space flight, as well as the performance of its thermal protection system (TPS) on a high-speed reentry.

NASA planners are pondering just how much data they can wring out of the vehicle's first three flights—including one with a crew planned for 2021—to begin learning how to operate in cislunar space, which is almost certain to be the first human destination beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).

“We have certain objectives that we need to accomplish from a test standpoint,” says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “We have to do certain profiles on certain things. But could we expand those potential test missions to do more?”

Possibilities include shifting Orion from one Earth-Moon Lagrangian point to another, or conducting a lunar flyaround or orbital mission. NASA's flat budget is so tight that the agency has deferred development of the service module that will carry Orion's propulsion and other systems. But with $5 billion already spent on the four-seat capsule once dubbed “Apollo on steroids,” Gerstenmaier and his colleagues are looking for some return on investment to apply against the missions beyond LEO it was developed to fly.

Lockheed Martin has been the Orion prime contractor since it was conceived as the “crew exploration vehicle” for the now-abandoned Ares I launcher under the Constellation program of deep-space human-rated vehicles. The company has built full-scale engineering articles for extensive ground testing and delivered the first flight article to Kennedy Space Center for integration and testing in preparation for the 2014 Delta IV mission.

“We're trying to solve 12 of 16 of the top risks,” says Cleon Lacefield, Lockheed Martin vice president and Orion program manager. “We're trying to do some kind of risk mitigation with those. That includes the parachutes, the landing system, the guidance and control, the flight computers, the reaction control system, the heat shield, the back-shell heat shield. Plus we're going to do the radiation [measurements] going through the Van Allen Belts, and we do have simulated mass in the seats so we can see what happens during landing.”

Under the Constellation program, Orion was intended to serve initially as transportation to the ISS for NASA crews and be scarred for missions beyond LEO. Now, with the introduction of commercial crew vehicles as the preferred route to the space station, Lockheed Martin is focusing on the deep-space mission. Lacefield says the vehicle still can perform the station mission with the addition of the docking system NASA is developing for all vehicles arriving at the U.S. side of the ISS. The focus, though, is on the early cislunar missions before moving on to visit an asteroid and eventually Mars. Among destinations Lockheed Martin is studying internally are Demos, the smaller of the two Martian moons, and the L2 Lagrangian point over the Moon's far side (AW&ST July 2, p. 22).

Lacefield says his program has benefitted from changes in NASA oversight growing out of the commercial-crew projects, which are conducted under Space Act procedures that are less restrictive than traditional agency procurements. Lockheed has also embedded NASA engineers in its design and testing work, which gives the agency insight into the company's work progress while Lockheed benefits from their labor in such areas as arc-jet and water-landing tests (see photo). The new approach has also extended to software testing, with dramatic cost-savings.

“They wanted us to do all the software development and software verification and validation activities in a government facility,” Lacefield says. “We're doing it in a facility that we have in Denver and a facility in Houston. By staying in those facilities and running those as we would run our company systems, that has increased the output and saved us several hundred million dollars.”

On the down side, the dwindling sub-tier aerospace supply base in the U.S. and the low-volume procurements for systems like Orion have created a parts crunch that threatens the flight schedule. Particularly critical is the supply chain for radiation-hardened electronics Orion will need to fly through the Van Allen Belts on its first test mission, which will take it through two high-apogee orbits to generate near-planetary reentry speeds.

“We have outsourced across all of the electrical components to get the parts that we need by the time that we need to do the vehicle checkout on the pad next March, the electrical checkout,” Lacefield says. “We are waiting on those parts to enable us to do the vehicle checkout on the pad in Florida.”

That mission will include an incomplete service module, without tanks or engines but with as much structure as possible to begin validating interfaces and other hardware. For the second Orion flight test, scheduled to go in 2017 on an SLS core stage with solid-fuel boosters derived from the defunct Ares I crew launcher, NASA is planning a full-scale Orion with service module, although it remains uncertain just what that will mean or who will build the service module components.

NASA is exploring the idea of working with the European Space Agency to develop an Orion service module based on Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle. But that idea ran into opposition from some of the ESA partners, and the plan for building the service module remains unsettled.

“Nothing has happened,” Lacefield says. “Our contract has not been changed, but we are trying to work with NASA. If the Europeans decided that they would be amenable to this, . . . then we wanted to have the most efficient split that made sense.”