NASA working to minimize shutdown impact to Springtime Orion abort test

NASA, Lockheed Martin, and the U.S. Air Force have resumed preparations for the Orion Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) test after the five-week long government shutdown disrupted work. The AA-2 test will collect data on the performance of Orion’s Launch Abort System (LAS) by initiating an abort at a high-stress point during ascent.

Major pieces of flight test hardware were about to be shipped or were being delivered to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida and the adjoining Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) launch site when the shutdown closed several federal agencies including NASA. Although some work was able to be restarted before the shutdown ended, it is expected that the launch date for the test will be delayed a couple of weeks into mid-May.

Flight test hardware at the launch site

All the hardware for the three-minute long test has arrived at launch site, with a couple of exceptions. “Today I can tell you everything is there, other than there are these structural pieces, the ogives, the launch abort system ogives,” Mark Kirasich, NASA Orion Program Manager, said in an interview. “The other two [pieces] are coming momentarily and that was planned anyway.”

The Orion LAS is designed to immediately pull the crew module away from its launch vehicle in extreme emergency situations that might occur before or during launch.  For the AA-2 test, a highly instrumented crew module simulator will be connected to a flight version of the Orion LAS and a modified Peacekeeper missile being used as the test booster.

The booster will take the vehicle up to a carefully chosen abort condition, where the LAS will fire to pull the top of the stack away. The LAS will then flip the crew module simulator around so it is in the right attitude for a real spacecraft to deploy parachutes for a soft landing before separating from the simulator. The simulator is not equipped with parachutes, but it will continue collecting and transmitting data until ocean impact less than three minutes after liftoff.

The test will start from Space Launch Complex 46 at CCAFS; NASA is using some of the buildings in its Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) infrastructure at KSC for final processing of the hardware before it moves to the pad for final assembly. Prior to the shutdown, NASA was expecting to be ready to launch the test at the end of April.

“In early February we were going to meet and pick ‘the’ launch date,” Kirasich explained. “We’re really doing that except we’re probably going to be a week or two later because of the shutdown. We need to think about it a little bit more, think about how the shutdown affected all these pieces.”

NASA presentation slide showing the flight test profile for AA-2 test. Credit: NASA.

At KSC the launch abort system (LAS) hardware is being assembled in the Launch Abort System Facility (LASF), the test Crew Module and Separation Ring (CSR) assembly is in the Multi-Payload Processing Facility (MPPF), and the solid-rocket abort test booster (ATB) is in the Rotation Processing and Surge Facility (RPSF). Additional hardware is being tested in the MPPF and temporarily stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

While technicians have resumed assembly and testing of the flight-test vehicle elements, program management will monitor progress for a little while longer before re-assessing the schedule and picking a new launch date. “I asked the team to go look at — hard — where you’re at, how long it will take you to recover, and then we’ll reconvene and we will announce a new launch date,” Kirasich said.

Shutdown impacts

The partial U.S. government shutdown started when Fiscal Year 2019 (FY 2019) funding for several federal agencies including NASA expired at the end of the day on December 21. Funding was not re-established until five weeks later when another continuing resolution that extends for only three weeks was enacted late on January 25.

A lot of the AA-2 test hardware was flowing into KSC and CCAFS at the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019 for final launch preparations. “We talked about how everything was supposed to be delivered essentially in November, December, and January,” Kirasich noted. “And then in January we had to hit the pause button.”

Recent views of a few of the major hardware pieces for the AA-2 at the Kennedy Space Center. The Crew Module and Separation Ring are in the Multi-Purpose Processing Facility (MPPF) on the left; on the right in the background, the aeroshells that will fit over the booster for the flight test in High Bay 4 of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: NASA.

The shutdown forced essentially the entire NASA civil servant workforce to be furloughed and most facilities closed, with some exceptions being made for ongoing mission operations and high-priority mission preparations where personnel had to keep working without pay. At its onset Kirasich said the shutdown complicated the logistics of handling hardware just arriving or in transit to Florida for launch.

“We have hardware provided by three different organizations,” he explained. “The U.S. Air Force provides the Abort Test Booster, Lockheed [Martin] provides the production Launch Abort System, and NASA provides as government furnished equipment (GFE) the Crew Module Sep (Separation) Ring test article.”

“The government shutdown occurred either right after many of these critical components got to the Cape or in the case of some of the LAS equipment and in the case of the abort test booster, the equipment was about to ship when the shutdown hit.”

The Air Force was not directly affected by the government shutdown, as Department of Defense full-year funding was enacted before FY 2019 began on October 1; however, non-exempt NASA facilities were closed and work on the AA-2 test stalled. The lapse in funding over the holidays and most of January broke the record for the longest shutdown ever and Kirasich described some of the process to restart work as the shutdown got longer and longer.

Two of the LAS motors in the LASF in September, 2018. The abort motor made by Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS) is on the left, the jettison motor made by Aerojet Rocketdyne is on the right. The third motor, the attitude control motor (made by NGIS), was delivered during the period disrupted by the government shutdown. Credit: NASA/Frank Michaux.

“When the shutdown went on longer I started looking at our AA-2 work and over time I was able to go to [NASA] Headquarters and explain rationale to get it excepted,” he said. “We were able to pick up with AA-2 work and we kind of did it in pieces.”

“All these different organizations, NASA, Lockheed, and the Air Force, all of the hardware was converging on the Kennedy Space Center in Kennedy Space Center buildings that were shut down, so each one was a little bit different scenario.”

“In the Launch Abort System case we were able to build an exception rationale and we were able to get Lockheed back in that building (the LASF).  It wasn’t on day one of the shutdown, it was a couple of weeks I think into the shutdown we were able to get Lockheed Martin back in,” he continued.

Although the Air Force was not directly affected, they couldn’t work in NASA facilities that had to kept closed. “It was really unclear at the onset of the shutdown that we would even be able to accept their hardware on KSC property, so our initial decision was we ship the solid rocket motor and we stored it on the Cape Canaveral Air Force side, we didn’t ship it to Kennedy because the DoD was not shut down,” Kirasich explained.

The Abort Test Booster’s SR-118 motor following arrival at the RPSF on January 29. Work to get the motor transported to the facility was suspended during the shutdown. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston.

“So we shipped the motor, we put it in a temporary facility on the Cape Canaveral side. The guidance control assembly, which is their avionics half of the rocket, we held. We held at Chandler, Arizona, when we started,” he added, referring to Northrop Grumman’s facility.

A Northrop Grumman SR-118 solid rocket motor is the booster for the test. Its original purpose was as the first stage of the Peacekeeper Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The Peacekeeper program was deactivated in 2002 and today the motors in the inventory are used for commercial purposes such as space launches.

“Then the shutdown kept going so I said ‘boy, let me see what I can do with these Air Force pieces.’ And it was very interesting, I had to work with lawyers here at Kennedy and Johnson [Space Center],” he explained.

“The Air Force was not shut down, it was only NASA. So you had to write the legal justification — ‘hey the Air Force is not shut down, this is important work to do in this building’ and we were eventually able to allow the Air Force to get access to the buildings, if that makes sense.”

“And then the very last piece which was the NASA piece,” he continued. “Now of course NASA was shut down, that was the hardest thing to get exempted and I was working on that piece right when the government on that Friday night signed that continuing resolution, but I was confident I would get that piece going again had the shutdown continued.”

“So that was a long story, a long story that said there will be some impact to the AA-2 date.”

Schedule reset held up until the shutdown

The AA-2 test had been scheduled for December, 2019, between the second and third Exploration spaceflight tests, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2). The latter will fly crew for the first time on Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) and the AA-2 test is one of the prerequisites for crew-rating the Orion system for EM-2.

In the aftermath of an agency study of flying crew on EM-1, the AA-2 test date was advanced even though it was decided to keep EM-1 uncrewed. “Initially that AA-2 test was supposed to be in December of 2019 and a year and a half ago we accelerated it eight months,” Kirasich noted.

Workers remove cover plates from around the Separation Ring of the combined Crew Module Separation Ring (CSR) assembly on December 6, shortly after the CSR arrived at KSC from the Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett .

“That was in August of 2017 when we made that decision to pull this up and when I did it I asked the team, I said ‘pull it back as far left as you can’ and it was essentially May first (2019), but they didn’t have any margin. And something that is really, really, really impressive in my book is this team from August of 2017 up until the government shutdown did not lose a single day of schedule, they held that launch date.”

“And now because of what I just told you we’re going to have to move AA-2 somewhere. It’s not going to be a big move, but you know you can kind of imagine it’s going to be somewhere in between zero and the duration of the shutdown. Since each [hardware case] was different, we’re trying to re-assemble that jigsaw puzzle, if you will.”

Current status and next steps

With everyone back at work for the three weeks that NASA is currently funded, the Crew Module and Separation Ring (CSR) test article is currently wrapping up checkouts in the MPPF. “We have five big elements right now being assembled in four different buildings,” Kirasich said.

“First off in the MPPF we have the Crew Module Sep Ring, the CSR, that government test article and the Abort Test Booster’s Guidance Control Assembly (GCA), that is the big avionics ring [with] all the avionics of the booster. Essentially over the past week we have electrically connected those two elements up and we are in the process of verifying that all the electrical interfaces work.”

“We’re validating all of the interactions between those two and we’re really close to being done with that I’ll call it electronic interface checkout.”

The elements of the flight test vehicle for the AA-2 test on the left. On the right, the elements of the Launch Abort System, which are currently being stacked in the LASF. Credit: NASA.

The Launch Abort System elements are now all in the LASF at KSC; the attitude control motor was the last of the three solid rocket motors to arrive. “In the LASF, Launch Abort System Facility, the abort motor, the jettison motor, and the attitude control motor, all three motors are there,” Kirasich noted. “All three motors have been assembled, they are now in a single launch abort system stack.”

“The LAS tower assembly will be fully integrated by Feb 9, that includes the MATA, Abort Motor, Aft Inter-stage, Jettison Motor, Forward Inter-stage, Attitude Control Motor, and the Nose Cone Assembly,” Don Reed, NASA Manager of the Orion Flight Test Office, said in an email. The Motor Adapter Truss Assembly (MATA) at the bottom of the LAS tower structurally attaches to the Crew Module.

“Now we can operate it as a system and we’ll be getting [into] the integrated check out of that element,” Kirasich noted. “And that’s going to be complete in about 10 days, about the middle of February we’ll have fully checked out the integrated launch abort system.”

AA-2 LAS structural elements at the Michoud Assembly Facility in August, 2018, partially assembled during testing. The green, primer-painted part at the top is an element of the Motor Adapter Truss Assembly (MATA). That sits on top of the white, multi-panel ogive fairing. Credit: Philip Sloss for NSF/L2.

Reed noted that the CSR is planned to move to the LASF on February 14 to begin testing and integration with the LAS. Work will begin with similar soft-mate testing between the CSR and the LAS before stacking the abort system on top. Reed said that testing would begin February 19.

After the MATA is attached to the Crew Module, the panels of the ogive-shaped fairing that cover the Crew Module will be installed. “The Ogives will be installed once the LAS is mated to the Crew Module in early March,” Reed noted.

“And then we have an integrated Orion test article which will be eventually rolled out to the launch pad,” Kirasich said.

For the Abort Test Booster, the motor is finally on KSC property following the hang ups from the shutdown. “The solid rocket motor itself is in the RPSF, Surge 1. We just drove it over from the Cape Canaveral side and it’s now undergoing its post-shipment checkout.”

A sequence of images showing how the aeroshells fit over the test booster. These images were taken last Summer during practice with an inert motor. Credit: NASA.

Reed said the motor is expected to be moved to Space Launch Complex 46 sometime in the last week of March.

After finishing tests with the CSR, the GCA will move to the RPSF to get ready to stack on the SR-118; although they are both being processed in the RPSF, the final mate will be at the pad. “The GCA (circular structure under the TRS) is attached to the Thrust Reaction Structure (TRS) in the RPSF Surge 1,” Reed said. “The mated TRS/GCA is transported to the pad on the KSC provided KAMAG then lifted by a crane and lowered down on top of the SR-118.”

After the TRS/GCA is mated to the booster, the aeroshell structure will be moved to the pad and lowered over the booster. Currently being stored in High Bay 4 of the VAB, the aeroshell has the same diameter as the separation ring and base of the crew module, and will help streamline the airflow over the vehicle during ascent prior to the abort.

Once the aeroshell is mated to the booster, it will be ready to receive the integrated Orion test article for final mating at the pad.

EM-1, EM-2 assembly and test continue

Elsewhere at KSC, the Orion spacecraft for the two lunar Exploration missions continue with their assembly, integration, and test work.

“We were able to keep the O&C, Operations and Checkout Building open,” Kirasich said. “Lockheed Martin was able to continue work during the shutdown and we were able to get certain civil servants excepted to support that really critical and important work and as a result the government shutdown did not have a single day’s impact to EM-1.”

The EM-2 spacecraft is still in structural assembly, but that work was also exempted so it could continue during the shutdown.

The EM-1 Service Module (left) is seen in a clean room at the O&C Building on December 10 during a tour there by the Space Shuttle STS-88 flight crew. Current KSC Director Robert Cabana commanded the mission, which was the first International Space Station assembly mission (second element launch), and celebrated its twentieth anniversary in December, 2018. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.

EM-1 spacecraft is now assembled into two modules, the Crew Module and the Service Module. Integration of the Service Module began with the arrival of the European Space Agency (ESA) Service Module (ESM) at KSC in early November. The ESM was mated to the Crew Module Adapter (CMA) to form the Service Module and since then tubing and wiring have been connected between the elements, along with further component installs.

Proof testing of the welds connecting the ESM and CMA was recently completed. “We pressurized them to proof pressure and then maximum design pressure, two extremely high pressures, and it’s really the first time the integrated system — all the welds, all the components, the tanks, everything — is at the maximum design pressure,” Kirasich noted.

“Not only do we pressurize it in the blast chamber with nobody in it, then after that we lower the pressure and we do leak tests, because we want to detect even the smallest of leaks and every one of our welds was lower than spec leakage, so everything there is going very well.”

The Service Module is currently back in the lift station in the O&C, where Kirasich said the newly welded tubes are being wrapped with insulation and heaters to protect them from the temperature extremes they will be exposed to during their missions to the Moon and back. “And then this task is going to finish up in about a week and then we roll it into the electrical test station and that’s when we power up, we call it initial power up of the Service Module,” he said.

“That’s going to be a little over a week from today, I think we’re targeting the 14th or 15th.”

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