Countdown to Mars: Nasa starts final assembly of huge rockets to test spacecraft it hopes will take man to the red planet

  • Three Delta IV boosters collectively generate 1.96 million pounds of thrust
  • Orion capsule will undergo first test flight in December
  • Comes as Nasa bosses reveal private contracts for shuttle replacement so they can concentrate on the project
Blastoff for the spacecraft which could one day take humans to Mars is set for the final countdown as Nasa begins assembling the giant rockets that will propel it into orbit.

The huge Delta IV Heavy rocket has been put together for the first time at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida ahead of a first test flight of the Orion capsule in December.

It will blast the experimental capsule in orbit - although the rockets are then expected to be replaced by Nasa's even bigger Space Launch system.

The three primary core elements of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket have now been put together, forming the first stage of the launch vehicle that will send Orion far from Earth to allow NASA to evaluate the spacecraft's performance in space.

The three Delta IV Common Booster Cores were attached in ULA's Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF), at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The HIF building is located at Space Launch Complex 37 where the mission will lift off.

The first booster was attached to the center rocket in June with the second one was attached in early August.

'The day-to-day processing is performed by ULA,' said Merri Anne Stowe of Nasa's Fleet Systems Integration Branch of the Launch Services Program (LSP). 'Nasa's role is to keep a watchful eye on everything and be there to help if any issues come up.'

Stowe explained that during major testing experts from Nasa's Launch Services Program monitor the work on consoles in Hanger AE at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Hangar AE is home to the Kennedy Space Center's upgraded Launch Vehicle Data Center.

The facility allows engineers to monitor voice, data, telemetry and video systems that support expendable launch vehicle missions

NASA's Florida spaceport is also where Orion was built and is being processed.

The Delta IV rocket stages were assembled at the ULA plant in Decatur, Alabama, about 20 miles west of Huntsville.

After completion, the rocket components were shipped down the Tennessee River and Tombigbee Waterway, a canal, to the Gulf of Mexico.

From there they traveled to Cape Canaveral, arriving on May 6.

The elements of the rocket's first stage were then transported to the HIF for preflight processing.

'After the three core stages went through their initial inspections and processing, the struts were attached, connecting the booster stages with the center core,' Stowe said.

'All of this takes place horizontally.'

The three common booster cores are 134 feet in length and 17 feet in diameter.

Each has an RS-68 engine that uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant producing 656,000 pounds of thrust.

All totaled, the three Delta IV boosters collectively generate 1.96 million pounds of thrust.

The second stage of the Delta IV rocket is 45 feet in length and 17 feet in diameter. It uses one RL10-B-2 engine, also burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant creating 25,000 pounds of thrust.

'The second stage was taken to the Delta Operations Center for processing after it arrived,' said Stowe. 'The second stage was moved to the HIF on Aug. 29 and is scheduled to be horizontally mated to the first stage on Sept. 12.'

The same upper stage will be used on the block 1 version of NASA's new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). More powerful than any rocket ever built, SLS will be capable of sending humans aboard Orion to deep-space destinations such as an asteroid and Mars.

'The hardware for Exploration Flight Test-1 is coming together well,' Stowe said. 'We haven't had to deal with any serious problems. All of the advance planning appears to be paying off.'

Once all the launch vehicle stages are mated and thoroughly checked out, the next step is the Test Readiness Review.

'These meetings are held to bring together all the interested parties to be sure the Delta IV rocket is ready for the move to the launch pad where the Orion spacecraft will be mated,' Stowe said.

The upcoming flight test will use the Delta IV Heavy to launch the Orion and send it 3,600 miles in altitude beyond the Earth's surface. During the two-orbit, four-hour mission, engineers will evaluate the systems critical to crew safety, the launch abort system, the heat shield and the parachute system. The data gathered during the mission will influence design decisions and validate existing computer models. The flight also will reduce overall mission risks and costs for later Orion flights.

The capsule will re-enter Earth's atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph, generating temperatures as high as 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

The Lockheed Martin-built Orion is designed to take humans farther than ever before. The spacecraft will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry astronauts to space and provide safe re-entry from deep-space missions.

Orion currently is undergoing final assembly in Kennedy's Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building.

Stowe is especially invested in a successful outcome for the flight test.

'What I'm looking forward to most,' she said, 'is seeing that Orion capsule being retrieved from the Pacific.'

During its Dec. 4 test flight, the unmanned capsule will shoot more than 3,600 miles into space and take two big laps around Earth before re-entering the atmosphere at 20,000 mph and parachuting into the Pacific off the San Diego coast.

The entire mission will last 4½ hours.

The second Orion flight won't occur until around 2018 when another unmanned capsule soars atop NASA's new megarocket, still under development, called SLS for Space Launch System.NASA intends to put astronauts aboard Orion in 2021 for deep space exploration; each capsule can accommodate up to four.

The plan is to use Orion for getting humans to asteroids and Mars — no space station ferry trips for Orion.

While Orion may resemble an oversize Apollo capsule on the outside, everything inside and out is modern and top-of-the-line, officials noted Thursday.

'I'm as excited as can be,' said Nasa's Orion production operations manager, Scott Wilson.

For Orion's dry run, the Lockheed Martin Corp.-built capsule will have hunks of aluminum in place of seats for ballast, and simulators instead of actual cockpit displays.

A Delta IV rocket will do the heavy lifting.

It will eventually be launced by Nasa's new Space Launch System 'megarocket'.

For its first flight test, SLS will be configured for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit.

In its most powerful configuration, SLS will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), which will enable missions even farther into our solar system, including such destinations as an asteroid and Mars.

When asked by a reporter, Cabana said he wishes Orion's flight pace was quicker.

'But it is what it is,' he said. 'Given the budget that we have, I think we've got the best program that you could imagine.'

Orion has its roots in the post-Columbia shuttle era; it originated a decade ago as a crew exploration vehicle to get astronauts beyond low Earth orbit and managed to survive the cancellation of the Constellation moon project.



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