Orion mock-up leaves space cen­ter

$256M load de­parts on five-day jour­ney from Texas to Florida

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Alex Stuckey STAFF WRITER

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

Steve Gon­za­les / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

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