Heading Toward White Sands

A full-scale mock-up of NASA’s Orion crew module was loaded into the mouth of a C-17 cargo plane Tuesday and took flight Wednesday morning. The mock-up, referred to as the crew module pathfinder, is headed towards White Sands Missile Range, where it will support NASA’s test of the abort system, called Pad Abort 1.


Designed and fabricated at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., the structure represents the size, outer shape and specific mass characteristics of the Orion crew module.


Scheduled to arrive at White Sands on Friday, March 13, the crew module pathfinder will be used to help prepare for the Pad Abort 1 flight test. Ground crews will practice lifting and stacking the pathfinder on the launch pad, an activity that will prepare them to handle the actual Orion flight test article for Pad Abort 1.


The 90-second flight for Pad Abort 1 will be an important first step toward demonstrating how NASA is building safety into its next generation of spacecraft and will help gather information about how NASA’s newly-developed launch abort system operates in reality. The system will provide a safe escape route for astronauts in the Orion crew capsule if there is a problem on the launch pad or during ascent into low Earth orbit atop the Ares I rocket.



Here’s a picture of the mockup of the Orion launch abort system sitting in front of the Science Museum Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. It will be there today and tomorrow, and it will then head to Amarillo, Texas, later this weekend. Our teams on the ground tell us there are busloads of school kids and visitors stopping by to see the mockup, so if you are in the Oklahoma City area, stop on by and say hello.

Testing,Testing,A-1 to -3…

Engineers at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center are hard at work to prepare the facility for testing the J-2X rocket engines and rocket stages that will help carry humans back to the moon.

Steel work is progressing on the A-3 Test Stand, which will be used to perform high-altitude testing of the J-2X engine, a cornerstone of NASA’s Constellation Program to go back to the moon and beyond. By February, workers were completing the seventh of 16 stages of steel work necessary to erect the tower that is 300 feet tall.

Meanwhile, modification and maintenance work continues on the A-1 Test Stand, which also will test the J-2X engine and its components. It is the most extensive modification effort performed on the stand since the early 1970s, when it was converted for testing space shuttle main engines.

Engineers also continue major modifications on the B Complex Test Facility to prepare for testing stages of the Ares rockets to be used in the Constellation Program. Stennis is responsible for testing the upper stage of the Ares I crew launch vehicle and the first stage of the Ares V cargo launch vehicle. To that end, engineers are creating and installing new control systems and data acquisition and recording systems at the test complex. They also are upgrading fire and gas detection systems on the B Test Stand.

Finally, engineers are installing a new liquid nitrogen pump system at Stennis’ high-pressure gas facility. One of three pumps has been installed and already is matching the output of four older pumps while using less power and experiencing less mechanical strain and much less propellant loss. All three new pumps are scheduled to be in place in time to support the liquid nitrogen needs involved with J-2X and Ares stage testing.

Staging the Ares I

When NASA has built a rocket, it has historically been done in segments, or stages.  For example, the Saturn V used to take astronauts to the moon during the Apollo program had three stages. The Constellation Program’s new Ares I rocket will have two stages – the first and upper stages.


Some have asked, why do you need stages? Why not build one large ship and be done with it? The reasoning for this is simple — most of the structure used in a launch vehicle houses the fuel needed to power the propulsion system. As the vehicle burns fuel, it no longer needs the full-sized structure to reach orbit; therefore, it becomes excess weight. By staging or dropping off these stages, the vehicle becomes lighter and the propulsion system has to push less weight into orbit. 


While staging is a necessary part of the launch process, it does have potential risks and is given additional scrutiny because of the relative complexity. As with all launch events, staging is studied carefully by project engineers to ensure mission success. This is a normal part of the NASA development process.  For Ares, NASA has evaluated the first-stage-to-upper-stage-separation event from the perspective of ensuring the ability to separate, being able to confirm separation has occurred, and having sufficient clearance to not re-contact the J-2X engine nozzle with the interstage as it is pulled away from the Ares I upper stage. 


The separation of the Ares I stages is carefully timed and based upon preset acceleration levels. Separation will occur when those levels are read by on-board accelerometers, which takes place when the first stage runs out of propellant and the internal pressure reduces. A set of linear shaped charges between the upper stage and first stage will fire, separating the metal between the first stage and the interstage. At the same time, ten booster deceleration motors fire to pull the first stage directly backward, while eight ullage settling motors fire to push the upper stage forward. After the segments separate, the first stage tumble motors fire to slow the stage for its return trip to Earth and eventual recovery.


As part of this process, NASA engineers ran thousands of physics-based models (“Monte Carlo” analyses) to evaluate the first stage/upper stage separation. These models are developing and continue to improve. In addition, engineers analyzed and evaluated the system redundancies and potential for re-contact between the J-2X nozzle and the interstage. NASA’s analyses concluded that there will be a good separation, even in a worst case scenario. Because this is a critical event, NASA had the Aerospace Corporation perform an independent analysis and their conclusions supported the NASA analysis.

This along with many other developments is a key “risk” that will continue to be watched closely, and managed and mitigated using proven risk management techniques as we proceed with the final design phase of Ares I.



Sleeping on The Moon

One of the comments we received on the Altair video asked about possible sleeping arrangements for the astronauts. Well, we are exploring various configurations for crew sleeping accommodations. One option is certainly fold-down beds. Currently, we are experimenting with a hammock concept for Altair, in which a fabric hammock is supported by two poles, which attach to the forward walls of the cabin.  In this scenario, we would deploy four such hammocks vertically, similar to how crew sleep stations are arranged on many naval vessels.  When not in use, the poles would be stowed flush with the cabin walls and the hammocks would be folded up and stowed in lockers.  This arrangement worked well in recent evaluations and allowed our test subjects to “sleep” without disturbing each other, and it allowed any crew member to get up in the middle of the night (e.g., to get a snack, complete a task) without causing the others to have to move their sleep stations out of the way.  We will continue to explore additional concepts in the future as we search for the ideal solution to incorporate into the Altair.  It will be interesting to see what kind of sleeping accommodations eventually fly.

Here’s a look at some of the testing being done on the sleep stations inside one of the Altair mock-ups.

The Towers Rise


This is a shot of Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center, which is being prepared for the Ares I-X test flight later this year. That particular pad — as well as its twin, pad 39A — was the site of space shuttle launches since the 1980s until 39B was retired in 2006 (pad 39A is now the primary site). In this picture, which was taken at dawn, you can see the towers of the new lightning protection system for the pad. Each of the three new lightning towers will be 500feet tall with an additional 100-foot fiberglass mast on top of them. This work is being done because the Ares and Orion stack will be much taller than the shuttle is, coming in at more than 300-feet tall.

Take a Spin Around The Inside of Altair


One of the things we get a lot of questions about is what the inside of the Altair lunar lander will look like. Well, initial concept work is already underway, and the NASA team is busy exploring Altair’s design. While the details of what the crew cabin will look like are still being figured out, what is known is that Altair will carry four astronauts to the lunar surface and will serve as their home for up to a week.

Altair is big. One current concept is that it will stand more than 30 feet high and will be almost 45 feet wide at the footpads. There are mock-ups already built at the Johnson Space Center in Houston where habitability teams are working inside, trying out different configurations. These teams are taking a look at how astronauts will live and work inside, so that Altair can be built in the best way possible for the mission.

Click on the link below and take a quick spin around the inside of Altair. It’s a conceptand NASA is exploring othersbut as you can see, it will be very different from anything we’ve designed before.

Click here to view the video in Windows Media Player format

Click here to view the video in RealPlayer format