Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Orion spacecraft planned for lunar mission begins construction by Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin has begun producing the Orion spacecraft that is planned to send NASA astronauts on a journey around the Moon. NASA’s Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2) which is currently slated for a 2022 launch date has seen the first two components of the craft’s pressure vessel welded together.

“Each of these spacecraft are important, but we realize that the EM-2 capsule is special as it’s the first one to carry astronauts back out to the Moon, something we haven’t done in a long time. It’s something we think about every day,” said Paul Anderson, director of Orion EM-2 production at Lockheed Martin via a company-issued release.

Engineers working at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility located near New Orleans welded together the first two parts that are planned for use on the EM-2 mission which should see astronauts travel to the Moon. If everything goes off without a hitch, this flight should mark the first time that a crew has been sent to the Moon’s vicinity since the Apollo 17 mission which took place in December of 1972.

The first weld conducted on the EM-2 pressure vessel joined the the forward bulkhead with the vehicle’s tunnel section – which forms the top of the structure.

“Orion has tremendous momentum. We’re finishing assembly of the EM-1 Orion spacecraft in Florida, and simultaneously starting production on the first one that will carry crew,” said Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin vice president and program manager for Orion via a release issued by Lockheed Martin. “This is not only the most advanced spacecraft ever built, its production will be more efficient than any previous capsule. For example, look at the progress we’ve made on the EM-2 pressure vessel compared to the first one we built. The latest version is 30 percent lighter and has 80 percent fewer parts. That equates to a substantially more cost-effective and capable spacecraft.”

Orion’s pressure vessel is designed to be able to handle to harsh environs of space which will be required when sending astronauts the 252,088 miles (405,696 km) between the Earth and the Moon. As with most vehicles that are developed and produced as part of an ongoing series, changes have been made to the EM-2 design from the prior vessel.

“The EM-1 and EM-2 crew modules are very similar in design, but we’ve made a lot of improvements since we built EM-1, including processes, scheduling, and supply chain, all contributing to a lower cost and faster manufacturing,” Anderson said.

The pressure vessel should continue to undergo construction through this summer in Michoud. During this time, it should see its three cone panels, large barrel and the aft bulkhead added. According to Lockheed Martin, seven bulkheads make up the Orion spacecraft’s pressure vessel. These are made up of machined aluminum alloy pieces which engineers weld together, these are light in weight, but still very strong.

The Trump Administration has been pushing to have the space agency’s low-Earth orbit operations handed over to commercial entities, with the White House stating its intention to hand the sole LEO destination, the International Space Station, to private companies. With station operations handled by private firms, NASA should be freed to focus on deep space exploration – enter Orion.

NASA and Lockheed Martin are hoping to have EM-2’s pressure vessel shipped to Kennedy Space Center in Florida in September of this year (2018). Once there, it will continue to undergo testing and final assembly.