Key component for EM-1’s Orion spacecraft arrives at Kennedy Space Center

Technicians guide the Orion heat shield in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building after removing it from its shipping crate.

Technicians guide the Orion heat shield in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building after removing it from its shipping crate. Photo Credit: NASA

Slamming into Earth’s atmosphere at 6.8 miles per second (11 kilometers per second), Orion’s heat shield must protect the vehicle from the searing heat of reentry after its flight around the Moon. However, before it can go on its journey to our nearest neighbor, the shield had to make a much more mundane — though no less important — trip here on Earth.

The heat shield for the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) Orion vehicle arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida on September 19, 2016, where it was offloaded from the agency’s Super Guppy aircraft and delivered to the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building’s high bay.

The heat shield is a joint project, designed by engineers at Lockheed Martin and NASA’s Orion team, and was built at Lockheed Martin’s Denver-area manufacturing facility.

NASA’s manager of production operations for the Orion Program, Scott Wilson, was pleased to see the shield reach KSC. “We are very excited the EM-1 heat shield has arrived here at the Orion factory on the first leg of a journey that will ultimately take it beyond the moon and back,” stated Wilson.

Though similar in appearance and function to the Apollo crew capsule’s heat shield, the Orion’s heat shield is significantly larger and, is even moderately changed from the unit that flew on Orion’s maiden flight on Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) in December 2014.

The 16.4 feet (5 meter) wide diameter shield is the largest of its kind ever constructed and is designed to protect the craft and crew from the nearly 5,000 degrees F (2,760 degrees C) temperatures Orion may encounter on its return from a lunar-vicinity mission.

Currently, the shield is comprised of a titanium truss structure, with a composite substrate encasing it. Once Avcoat — a thermal protection product designed to shed heat as it erodes away during reentry — is applied by technicians, it’ll go through a series of tests to validate the new thermal protection blocks are properly bonded to the shield and will perform as expected through the temperatures extremes Orion is likely to experience on EM-1.

After the testing has been completed, the shield will be attached to the Orion crew module in the summer of 2017.

Orion is slated to launch aboard the maiden flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) in 2018, and will travel further than any crew-rated spacecraft has ever flown. With the mission calling for a distant lunar retrograde orbit, Orion will trek thousands of miles beyond the Moon’s surface during its three-week journey, allowing engineers and technicians to test the craft and subsystems as they operate in a deep space environment.

Monday’s arrival of the heat shield was just the latest in a series of steps in the agency’s Journey to Mars and brings NASA just a little closer to the Red Planet.

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