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New Orion capsule heat shield a “breakthrough” for NASA

Posted by 3citynewswire on 03/02/2010

Looking like a UFO from an old science fiction movie, the new resin Orion heat shield hovers above its mold at the Lockheed Martin composite development facility in Denver. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

The Orion crew capsule as a shining example of new technology development? Well, that’s the latest word from Lockheed Martin which on Monday hailed the space capsule’s new heat shield as a  breakthrough.

“[Orion] is at the height of its development phase, which has spurred several new technologies and innovations such as a cutting edge high-temperature composite material system,” said a press release on Monday, seemingly tailoring its language to the Obama administration’s new vision for NASA.

According to the release, the 16.4 foot diameter heat shield was described as a “resin system” developed over 18 months by in partnership with TenCate Advanced Composites.

It was dreamed up in house at Lockheed in Denver as a cheaper replacement for Orion’s original titanium heat shield which would have to be made in sections and takes up to a year to put together, according to Colin Sipe, who was in charge of the team working on the project. The new composite shield takes only months to make, weighs slightly less than the titanium shield and would save lots of money.

“In addition to the technology advancement, we achieved a $10 million cost savings and improved the project schedule by 12 months through the innovative tooling, materials and fabrication processes the team put into action,” Cleon Lacefield Lockheed Martin’s Orion program manager said.

The giant Frisbee-like shield is supposed to go on the bottom of the Orion “ground test article” – the first full-sized mock up of the capsule being built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, La. — described as “a production pathfinder to validate the flight vehicle production processes and tools.”

The problem is that the new heat shield has not officially been accepted yet by NASA as officially be part of Orion because the titanium shield is still considered to be the baseline design. A procedure is underway to change that, Sipe said.

But it all might be too late. The Obama administration has proposed cancelling Orion and its Ares I launch vehicle as part of a major overhaul of NASA.

After five years and at least $9 billion spent on the development of the new spaceship, the president’s 2011 budget would scrap the centerpieces of the agency’s Constellation moon program because they were deemed “unsustainable.” Several government studies found Ares and Orion too expensive and behind schedule and thought their development funds could be better spent on other projects.

In their place, the White House wants to fund a “game-changing” new technology development program to discover new tools and more affordable systems that could send humans to Mars in weeks not months.

While there is no doubt among engineers and space industry analysts that Orion has developed important new technologies, many see a touch of irony and desperation in the company’s use of language about new technology development and its promotion of its cost savings at this particular point in time.

“There is no doubt that Lockheed Martin is trying to save it’s baby and is doing whatever it can to keep Orion alive,” said one aerospace industry executive, whose company competes with Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed Martin executives are currently lobbying Congress to keep some parts of the Constellation program alive that would guarantee Orion’s survival.

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