Orion mock-up leaves space center
$256M load departs on five-day journey from Texas to Florida
Chasing Orion: This is the sixth in a series of stories leading up to the April 2019 launch of Orion’s launch abort system, which is managed by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Social media, of all things, first alerted NASA officials to a problem with the mock-up of Orion — the spacecraft being built to take humans back to the moon — on an early January morning in 2014.
The test module was being transported home via truck after undergoing tests in San Diego. Pictures posted online showed that, while agency personnel slept, an enthusiast had clambered atop the 11-foot-tall spacecraft to capture a much sought-after selfie.
Needless to say, that was the last time NASA transported a vehicle across country with the agency’s iconic “meatball” emblem on the side. So when a different Orion mock-up left the gates of Houston’s Johnson Space Center on Saturday — embarking on a five-day journey to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center where it will be launched in April to test its emergency abort system — it was devoid of all signage and symbols.
The incognito mock-up is just one of many complicated steps NASA sets in place when transporting a spacecraft across the country. Others include protecting the vehicle from road hazards, getting transportation permits for each state and tracking weather patterns to ensure a safe delivery.
$256 million on the line — and a worldwide reminder in October of why these abort systems are so important — getting the vehicle to Florida in one piece is vital.
“It’s a part of the overall attention to detail that you need to produce any of these things,” said project manager Jon Olansen. “It’s all about all the different levels of effort required.” Precious cargo
The haul that sat atop the semitruck pulling onto NASA Road 1 on Saturday morning was covered by an enormous purple tarp.
To those driving by, it could be anything: a tractor or a backhoe, maybe even oil and gas machinery.
“It looks like a Darth Vader helmet,” said Ken Nowak, Kennedy’s exploration ground systems logistics lead. “We try to keep it quiet. We’re all about public affairs at NASA but … it’s better to keep the public away until we get it there safely.”
In that sense, the tarp serves two purposes: to provide some secrecy from the public about what is being hauled and, more importantly, to protect the mock-up Orion module from road debris or inclement weather on its 1,000-mile journey to Cape Canaveral.
The heavy-duty tarp and the shrink wrapping that covers the module underneath were chosen as the best means to protect the vehicle after numerous assessments, Olansen said.
“We have multiple people looking at multiple aspects of every scenario to make sure we’re covering everything needed,” Olandamaged sen said. “It’s not as simple as throwing a tarp over it, walking through and making sure that’s sufficient.”
As the Saturday travel date approached, he added, NASA employees also were vigorously checking weather predictions, making sure the multimillion dollar vehicle would not be met with rain, hail or high winds.
Additionally, NASA had to acquire numerous permits to traverse the roads. First, it needed a special permit from the federal government for hazardous materials because of the pyrotechnics on the spacecraft — the part that allows the crew module to separate from the rocket in case of emergency. Then, it needed permits from all five states it will cross because each has different travel regulations for a load that large.
In Texas, for example, the truck isn’t allowed on highways, Nowak said, and in Louisiana, Alabama and Florida, the vehicle needs police escorts.
Nowak will be in a separate car escorting the module as part of a cohort of NASA employees both in front of and behind the truck the entire trip, he said.
“Anything can happen on the highway, so I just wanted to have my eyes on it the whole time and I can report back if anything happens to it,” Nowak said. “And we have a radio, so we listen to the drivers.”
They’ll take a break at night in a hotel room to sleep off the hours of driving, he said. At that point, a security team steps in to stand guard over the vehicle.
Another NASA team had to repeatedly test different ways to secure the vehicle to the truck transporting it so that it would remain in place and unWith when faced with the vibrations of road travel or, of more concern, if the driver has to slam on the brakes along the way.
And, in case the 18wheeler breaks down, there’s always a truck cab trailing behind so that the trailer can be attached and the journey to Kennedy can continue.
And all this has to be completed in five days.
“The most challenging part is meeting the schedules,” said Tom Hoge, the Assembly, Integration and Test lead for the project. “When we say we’re shipping on a certain day, we’re bringing a lot of organizations together to make it happen, and getting everything ready for that precise day is probably the hardest part.” A startling reminder
The world was reminded of why spacecrafts need working emergency abort systems just two months ago.
On Oct. 11, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft transporting an American astronaut to the International Space Station had to abort its launch after a rocket booster failed, forcing an emergency landing.
The abort — Russia’s first in 35 years — was a success, leaving both NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin safe and in good condition. But the incident was a stark reminder of why such a system is so important — especially for a vehicle tasked with hauling humans back to the moon for the first time in 50 years.
A return to the moon is a top priority for President Donald Trump’s administration, and his $19.9 billion proposed budget for the next fiscal year tasks NASA with launching an unmanned Orion flight by 2021, followed by a launch of Americans around the moon in 2023.
But before humans strap into the spacecraft, the agency must test the vehicle’s primary safety feature, known as the launch abort system. If there is a problem with the rocket in the seconds after launch, this system separates the crew module from the boosters so those on board can escape a fiery death.
Johnson personnel have been working on the test module since March. They outfitted it with flight computers, communication systems and about 800 data sensors. They also put it through flight simulations, as well as weight and center of gravity testing because it must have the exact measurements as the real Orion when humans are on board. Earlier this month, the mock-up crew module returned to Johnson from NASA’s Ohiobased Glenn Research Center, where it underwent four days of acoustic tests designed to ensure the capsule is structurally sound.
The simplified module will not be reused once the test is complete. Additional capsules for the unmanned and crewed missions are under construction elsewhere. The Space Launch System — the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built that will send Orion to space — as well as the ground systems for launch also are being developed simultaneously.
From start to finish, the abort system test is expected to account for only $256 million of the program’s more than $11 billion budget, according to NASA. [email protected] twitter.com/alexdstuckey
Harmon Meeker, Johnson Space Center contractor with Landstar Ranger, prepares to move the AA-2 payload on a flatbed truck headed for the Kennedy Space Center on Saturday. The $256 million test module is outfitted with flight computers, communication systems and about 800 data sensors.