October 20, 2016 – The heat shield from Orion’s first flight in space is embarking on another journey along the East Coast, beginning at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia and making its way to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida where it will be assessed for future needs.
Before its departure from Langley, the heat shield was used in a series of drop tests to better understand what the spacecraft and astronauts may experience when landing in the Pacific Ocean after deep-space missions. A high-fidelity capsule, coupled with the heat shield, was hoisted into the air and vertically dropped into Langley’s 20-foot-deep Hydro Impact Basin. Crash test dummies secured inside the spacecraft were instrumented to provide data that will help engineers design future capsules. Each of the nine drop tests in the series simulated a different scenario for Orion’s parachute-assisted landings, wind conditions, velocities and wave heights the spacecraft may experience when landing in the ocean.
The heat shield was flown on Orion’s Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) on December 5, 2014. During that test, the uncrewed spacecraft traveled 3,600 miles into space and returned safely to Earth. The heat shield protected the Orion spacecraft during its 4,000 degree reentry through Earth’s atmosphere.
In the time since the flight, teams around the country have taken the spacecraft apart and used the data to inform the design and build of the Orion capsule that will carry astronauts to deep space destinations. The flight test yielded more than 500 gigabytes of data.
After NASA returned the spacecraft to Kennedy Space Center, Orion’s flown heat shield was shipped to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where its outer layer was removed for analysis before then being sent to the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
Engineers developing Orion’s thermal protection system have been refining the spacecraft’s heat shield design and manufacturing process. Orion’s heat shield will be built in blocks for the next mission, rather than as a monolithic structure, as a result of the insights gained from its first flight. On the next flight, Orion will experience colder temperatures in space and hotter temperatures upon reentry, and data from EFT-1 is helping improve the design of the heat shield to meet this challenge.
Meanwhile, teams across the nation and in Europe are making substantial progress toward the next flight of Orion and the first flight of the Space Launch System rocket into deep space, thousands of miles beyond the moon, on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), expected to launch in 2018.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Littleton, Colorado, is the prime contractor for Orion. Lockheed engineers are involved in every step of the design process.