Sunday, June 19, 2011

Orion Test Capsule Heading East

Barbara and Cheryl and the Orion test
capsule parked on its trailer
 at the Texas History Museum in Austin.
Cheryl and I went to check out the Orion test capsule today. They're trucking it from California to Florida with stops in Tuscon, Austin, and Tallahassee on the way. The actual name of the thing is the Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). They've removed one side panel and replaced it with Lexan so you can see inside. It's fully wired up with those same old round Amphenol connectors on the Saturn V. I couldn't get a picture of the inside but Cheryl may have some I can add later. It's small in there. There's room for six people in an emergency evacuation but the typical crew is four, two teams of two. It will be a tight fit for six. Still, compared to the Soyuz it's roomy.

They'd already started a presentation in the theater in the museum when we got there. They were showing the video below. Afterwards they answered questions. I didn't catch the names of the two men who were answering questions. I'm assuming they were both engineers based on the way they spoke. One was an Ops guy from Edwards Air Force Base and the other one must've been on the design side of the project.

There were a lot of people there with very restless children. Some kids asked questions that make me think they are way more into the big picture than the tedious details. It kind of threw off the men with microphones. "Are we going to be able to ride in this to another galaxy?" asked a shrill voice behind me.

Blank stare. "No." Pause to analyze if he should keep talking. Decides to dive in and try to explain distance and fuel capacity and finally gives up and talks about telescopes.

They just parked the trailer in the street and put a tent over it. There's a ladder so you can go peek in.
There appear to be no windows in this thing at all. You know what else doesn't have windows? The Tardis.
I was more interested in the tedious details. They've actually shot this thing up into the air. How'd it work? Was it a smooth flight, like a Soyuz, or rough, like the shuttle? What determines this anyway? The capsule shape? The rockets? The interconnections? They didn't even have a booster on it, they were just testing the Launch Abort System. Do they get any useful acoustic and vibration data from that test for how the capsule will perform in an actual launch? They don't know which rocket they'll even put this on. Won't they have to retest it with a Delta Heavy or whatever they decide to use? How does the connection between the parts affect the system vibrations? I said the magic words "Tacoma Narrows Bridge" and the speaker's eyes lit up. He told a lovely story about the origins of flying buttresses and the problems with making things lighter when you put them in the wind. I could tell he was excited to talk about the acoustics. The Launch Abort system PULLS the capsule off the pad. Rockets fire right down at the crew module. Will they all be deaf afterwards? He didn't give details, but he said it was a successful test. He said something about not needing all the functions of the module once it aborts. It's not going to space anymore. Only has to keep them alive for 20 minutes or so. What? So you're saying the Launch Abort really tears stuff all to hell? I would have liked to find out what he meant but time was up.

I also never got to ask what happens to the space suits. Surely they aren't going to have the suits in the part of the vehicle that they jettison to burn up on reentry. Is there room in there to stow four suits and power to keep the batteries charged and everything? And there's room to get into them? Who will help the last guy? I've never seen anybody put one of those on without somebody not wearing gloves to help them. Somebody asked about doing EVA from this capsule. They said there is no airlock so basically everybody suits up then they depressurize the whole thing. They used to suit up on earth and wear that thing the whole time. They can't be doing that. Surely not. Anyway, I guess it doesn't matter for quite some time.

A woman in the audience asked if they were moving NASA to California now that the shuttle program was over and they were shutting down Texas and Florida. The speaker looked more flummoxed than he did about going to another galaxy. Huh? They just bring this one thing from assembly in California and now you think they're shutting down Johnson and Kennedy Space Centers? No! He didn't really explain it to her, but I think what she didn't understand is that they're laying off a bunch of people from the shuttle program, but they still need the facilities and expertise of SOMEBODY. They CAN'T close down. I guess considering what the NASA budget is some people have a hard time imagining how they can even keep the air conditioning on.

The whole thing leaves me feeling sort of uncomfortable. People are worried about the wrong thing. They think it's too expensive to send people to Mars. OK, but we still have to do all this other stuff. It's barely costing anything. To hook some rockets to a crew module boilerplate and shoot it a mile in the air to collect acoustics data and test the parachutes is a useful thing to do even if you don't ever go to Mars in it. We have to keep these people employed. We need to keep the instrumentation calibrated and be sure there are people around who know how to use it. They have to keep making things and testing them. They're designing this crew module to have a 30 year useful life. Well that doesn't mean you just don't design anything else until 2030. I hope that's not what it means. Please don't let it mean that.

Here's one of Cheryl's pictures. I may be pointing to a window.
They would have taped over it for transport. I couldn't see it from where I was.
No, I decided that's not a window. That might be in the section they replaced with the Lexan, based on this cutaway view picture in the gallery on the Lockheed Martin website. (I'm not sure if I'm allowed to embed their stuff here. If I'm not somebody tell me and I'll delete everything but the link.) There are also thrusters that they would have to tape over.

Here's another image showing windows. They go all out on the resolution on these renderings!


  1. The Tardis has windows, they're just more decorative than anything.

  2. Oh you're right! The ones in the door that make it look like there's a light on inside. But you can't see out from the inside through them. They're too high.