Before you can launch something into space, you first have to drop it, and then NASA ditches the Orion spacecraft in the expansive Hydro Impact Basin to see how the latter design holds up. It’s an early preview of what will ultimately be the last major part of Orion’s voyage back from the Moon, as it flows into the Pacific Ocean.
Before the ocean strikes, of course, its parachute descent will be slowed. Even so, 14,000 pounds of the space capsule still made an atomizer, something well-equipped to demonstrate in the Impact Basin (HIB) at the Landing and Impact Research Center of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
With backyard pools going on, the HIB is a big “ un. ” Completed in early 2011, it is a 115-foot by 90-foot basin filled with nearly a million gallons of water. NASA is not just raising its spacecraft and cutting the rope, but rather the mind: instead, there is precise control over the direction in which it hits the surface of the water, including how much vertical and horizontal impact velocity it carries.
Orion is no stranger to HIB. In fact, the first tests of the prototype capsule were carried out in mid-2011, although it was a far cry from the spacecraft version that NASA is working on today. At first it was much heavier than then: around 22,000 lbs.
Today’s test still uses a mockup, known as the Orion Structural Test Essay (STA). This was delivered to the Langley Research Center in late November 2020, complete with the latest design modifications from wind tunnel testing and new structural calculations. The goal is not just to see how the Orion will survive in ideal conditions, but to push it to the limit that it can handle.
“It’s not about trying to reduce uncertainty in the model and more about loading to design limits,” said Chris Tarkington, Chief Technology Officer last year, “raising the model higher in height and higher in load, not testing according to requirements, but testing to the extreme” .
Although it may not be worth the trip, STA still bears a relatively close resemblance to the final Orion spacecraft that will someday return astronauts to the moon. This model of the Orion crew unit includes flight designs for a pressure vessel barrel, back cover panels, and heat shield as well as high-precision secondary structures and other components, ”explains Brian Ross, Project Manager.
The goal is to prepare everything for testing the Artemis II flight, which will be the first time Orion has flown with a human crew on board. Ultimately, if all goes as planned, Artemis II will take its crew to the moon, allow the first woman and the next man to walk on the moon’s surface, and begin to forge a sustainable presence there.