Future generation of manned spacecraft undergoes testing in Va.

HAMPTON, Va. – During my public appearances and cruise lectures one question I get asked a lot is, “What’s NASA doing to get back into manned spaceflight?”

It is an honest question as NASA has to currently pay Russia, yes Russia, more than $71 million per seat to send astronauts to the International Space Station. When the space shuttle program was retired in 2011 the U.S. lost the capability to conduct its own manned spaceflight missions. Why? The answer is simple. The U.S. no longer had a spacecraft capable of manned spaceflight. The reason? Not so simple but primarily due to longstanding budget and political issues.

In 2004, President George Bush set forth his vision for America’s space program and NASA launched the Constellation Program. Constellation was going to take us back to the moon to stay this time with the creation of a lunar outpost. NASA geared up for the return to the moon by preparing to build a manned spacecraft called Orion, which was “Apollo on steroids” and included a lunar lander called Altair and two new rockets called Aries I and Aries V. A prototype of Aries I launched in 2009 but that was the only Constellation component to fly.

President Barack Obama cancelled Constellation in 2010 and directed the country’s space program to the asteroids, moon and Mars. So NASA had to change direction as well. Orion survived but has the added description of Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and NASA embarked on building the Space Launch System rockets to launch astronauts past Low Earth Orbit for the first time in almost 50 years. Apollo 17 in December 1972 was the last time humans ventured beyond Low Earth Orbit.

I have to say that what NASA is doing in building Orion and SLS has not been making it to prime time media. You can follow @NASA_Orion and @NASA_SLS on Twitter. And NASA has great web sites dedicated to both. I have been following NASA’s progress on Orion and SLS and will continue to do so hopefully culminating in witnessing the unmanned launch of Orion/SLS in 2017.

By monitoring Twitter, I found out that the Orion Ground Test Article (GTA) was at NASA’s Langley Research Center located near Hampton Roads, Va.

I contacted NASA at LRC who graciously arranged for me to not only see the Orion GTA but talk to two of the people who are involved with Orion: Structural Passive Landing Attenuation for Survival of Human Crews (SPLASH) Operations Manager Carrie Rhoades, and Senior Test Engineer Richard Boitnott.

The Orion GTA is a non-flying Orion spacecraft that was built by the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, very early on in the Orion program based upon design, specifications and proposed manufacturing processes. The GTA serves as a dry run for how the Orion spacecraft will be built and then is used for extensive testing to validate design, manufacturing and handling processes.

NASA’s LRC is located next to Langley Air Force Base and on Friday I got to see my first view of the F-22 Raptor as several roared down the runway and zoomed into the sky. I then met up with my host, Sasha Congiu, LRC’s Public Affairs Officer, and we proceeded to the building where Orion is located.

I must say it was a thrill to walk into the open workshop and see the green colored Orion GTA sitting on her massive work stand. Boitnott showed me around Orion and explained that the GTA had been undergoing acoustic and shake testing in Denver and other testing in Florida before being the spacecraft was trucked to Langley.

He also showed me one back panel worth an estimated $1 million that will be attached to the GTA along with other back panels all of which contain thermal protection tiles. These tiles are based on Space Shuttle thermal tile design and will protect Orion from the searing heat of re-entry along with an ablating heat shield. In touching the tiles I was surprised at how hard they felt. Orion will not have the same exterior finish like the Apollo Command Module, which was covered with a shiny and reflective ablative coating as the Orion thermal tiles are painted black.

Rhoades and Boitnott will be working with their team to attach strain gauges and other sensors to the GTA in preparation for testing at LRC. Boitnott explained that they will “have 500 channels of data” during testing which allow them to “get a good model and computer simulation.” Testing will take two years and will include the use of the original heat shield from the upcoming December 2014 test flight of the Orion MPCV called Exploration Test Flight-1. The heat shield should arrive at LRC in April 2015.

Rhoades and Boitnott stated with some pride and rightfully so, that Langley will have to make some modifications to the Orion GTA in order to accommodate the heat shield. The required modifications will be designed, built and attached to the heat shield and GTA in-house at Langley. This work is required as the original Orion and current heat shield design have changed somewhat since the GTA was built.

To me the most amazing Orion GTA testing will involve the unique, one-of-a-kind Landing and Impact Research Facility (LandIR). LandIR used to be called the Lunar Landing Research Facility and was operational in 1965. It was used to train the Apollo astronauts on how to land the Lunar Excursion Module on the moon.

This was done by attaching a flyable mockup to the huge, and I mean huge, 240-foot-high gantry by cable and having the astronauts land on a created moonscape complete with craters and dust. They flew these training missions at night by the light of the moon to simulate what the landing approach would look like. The returning astronauts said that this was a very good simulation of the real thing.

The Orion GTA will be hauled up to a predetermined height and swung pendulum style to a calculated moment of release. The GTA will then fall into the Hydro Impact Basin to simulate a splashdown landing. Sensors will take strain and stress readings while checks will be made of watertight integrity. I asked Boitnott how he determined the exact moment of release and he said, “I calculate it myself and then run it repeatedly through the computer simulation.”

In going to the top of the LandIR gantry it afforded a most impressive view of the surrounding terrain and LandIR itself. It was pretty amazing to imagine the Apollo astronauts training here. Boitnott also said that famed CBS News anchor, the late Walter Cronkite, got to simulate the moon’s gravity here during Apollo.

It was gratifying to touch the Orion GTA and see it as few others outside NASA have. I hope to visit Langley LRC next year to see the heat shield test and a drop test in person. I also will be visiting Marshall Space Flight Center this summer to see SLS.

Rest assured that NASA is moving right along in returning to manned spaceflight capability. The devotion to Orion and NASA was clearly visible in the demeanor of Rhoades, Boitnott and Congiu. They expressed pride in their work and excitement in discussing the future of Orion testing at Langley.

Watch this video to see more of what NASA is doing to return to manned spaceflight.

The key to the U.S. returning to manned spaceflight capability is to keep to the plan that is in place and avoid political changes that could occur in 2016. That my dear reader may prove to be harder than the technical challenges.

Follow my daily blog to keep up with the latest news in astronomy and space exploration. You can email me at skyguyinva@gmail.com.