Friday, January 24, 2014

NASA Manned Spaceflight - 2 Down, 1 To Go

Hey Space Placers!

Unmanned missions have been getting a lot of attention lately and rightfully so - Rosetta to a comet, Curiosity and Opportunity on Mars with Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter above the Red Planet with Maven to arrive, New Horizons to Pluto next year, Dawn to Ceres next year, Juno to Jupiter and Dragon and Cygnus (the resupply ships to ISS).

Even the Dream Chaser space plane just announced that it will fly to space on a test flight November 1, 2016 atop an Atlas-V launch vehicle. The Atlas-V is the same rocket NASA used last night to place its newest Tracking Data and Relay Satellite (TDRS) into orbit.

But what about NASA's return to manned spaceflight? It has been years since an American went into space using a U.S. vehicle. We have been buying seats from Russia at $76 million a pop to get the space station.

NASA has been working towards manned spaceflight capability quite spectacularly without a lot of public fanfare in my opinion. NASA has been posting updates on a regular basis but mainstream media has not been picking up on it. I have yet to see any major news story on TV or in print that gives the American people a true status report on where NASA is on the Orion-Space Launch System.

If you are a regular follower you know that Orion is the manned spacecraft that will carry astronauts to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the Moon, Mars and the asteroids. Orion is a capsule that looks like the Apollo spacecraft but much larger. The first flight ready Orion is being built and just completed all welding. The thermal protection system, including the heat shield is due for installation in the coming months.

The first flight ready Service Module (SM) has just been completed and will fly with the Orion capsule attached to it on the Exploration Test Flight-1 (EFT-1) scheduled for September 2014. The other major component, the Launch Abort System (LAS) has been completed for EFT-1 as well.

EFT-1 Service Module - NASA
EFT-1 will be unmanned and last only four hours, reaching orbit at a distance of  3,600 miles above Earth. This will allow Orion, the only component to return to Earth, to reach speeds of 20,000+ miles per hour - or the speed of a return from the Moon or deep space - in order to test the  thermal protection system and heat shield. EFT-1 will be launched by a Delta IV Heavy rocket and the Orion system will be carrying sensors to measure and monitor all aspects of the flight for analysis by engineers.

The first manned spaceflight using Orion and the new SLS is scheduled for 2017.

Progress is being made but politics has to be cut out of the equation. We can't have a new administration in 2016 take office and decide to put their mark on NASA and space. Those days are gone. We need to keep moving forward on Orion and SLS and get manned spaceflight and heavy lift capability back in the American space program.

Sky Guy in Frozen VA

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