Orion Pressure Vessel for Exploration Mission-2 Arrives at Kennedy Space Center

The Orion pressure vessel for Exploration Mission-2 arrives at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Aug. 24, 2018. (Credit: NASA/Christopher Swanson)

By Linda Herridge
NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center

It’s almost a packed house in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout building high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with the arrival of the Orion pressure vessel for Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) that will carry astronauts beyond the Moon atop the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. The pressure vessel arrived on a super-wide transport truck at the center Aug. 24 and joined the Orion Exploration Mission-1 crew module in the high bay where technicians recently secured the heat shield to the bottom of the spacecraft.

The pressure vessel is Orion’s primary structure that holds the pressurized atmosphere astronauts will breathe and work in while in the vacuum of deep space. The main structure of the pressure vessel consists of seven large aluminum pieces that are welded together to produce a strong, yet light-weight, air-tight capsule. The pieces were joined at the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans using a state-of-the-art process called friction-stir welding, which produces incredibly strong bonds by transforming metals from a solid into a plastic-like state, and then using a rotating pin tool to soften, stir and forge a bond between two metal components to form a uniform welded joint, a vital requirement of next-generation space hardware.

The pressure vessel was loaded into the Crew Module Transportation Fixture and then lowered onto a heavy equipment semi-trailer for the nearly 700-mile journey over land to Kennedy. Efforts will now begin to prepare the pressure vessel for flight. Initially, the crew module will be secured into a precision alignment tool and Lockheed Martin technicians will begin the work to attach the main structural components to the exterior of the module. These critical parts, some made of aluminum and titanium, will provide structural strength to the pressure vessel and give the spacecraft its conical shape.

“Flying Orion on our new SLS rocket represents the beginning of a new era in space exploration,” said Kent Beringer, EM-2 lead with Orion Production Operations at Kennedy. “This Orion spacecraft and the SLS will take humans farther into the solar system than ever before. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

  • Malatrope

    Friction stir welding might still be “state of the art”, Linda, but the Russians were doing it in 1990 on their fighter airplanes. We were investigating this at Boeing, but the research got put on low priority when we went full-gonzo for composites. I’m retired now, but I believe it still plays a part in some assemblies. The main advantage is that you can join two dissimilar metals.

  • ronsmytheiii

    So we now have an Orion, Dragon 2.0, and CST-100 all in th flow at KSC for flights? Seems like a big moment to me.

  • Jeff Smith

    There’s never been a better time to be in the space business. And if everything works out, it will NEVER go back to the way it was before!

  • Jeff Smith

    The bizjet folks use it bunch. I personally think that composites were the right choice for Boeing, lower cabin pressure altitude, higher cabin humidity, etc. are all pretty big benefits. If they toss that technology out for NMA (797), that’ll be a real head scratcher.

    As for Orion (and all the other capsules) every time I hear them using a standard industrial process it makes me think they’ll actually get it done this time. No “magic” steps please, they never work.

  • Malatrope

    Boeing senior management and head-scratching decisions go together like peanut butter and jelly, but, that said, I have some experience (nine patents on composite production processes,787 family) and while as you state there are big advantages there are also big drawbacks. How much “black aluminum” to use probably continues to be a huge debate.

    Composite cheerleaders want 100% CFRP, legacy metal folks want 0%, and the best design lies somewhere in the middle.

  • Jeff Smith

    I was a composites cheerleader until I started working with the stuff! Some of the worst engineering I’ve ever seen are parts that are clearly metal parts built out of black aluminum because “weight savings”. That being said, for aircraft pressure vessels where, multi cycle fatigue, corrosion and pressure deltas all directly contribute to passenger comfort, there’s currently nothing better. (No, I don’t like sitting on top of the world’s driest mountain every time I sit in an aluminum bird.)

  • Timah Panas Thot

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  • duheagle

    Good thing it’s in a crate. Nobody will have to dust it during the years it sits around before it flies.

  • Cameron

    IF it flies – that depends on the success of SLS, does it not? Which is far from assured.
    I suppose you could carry one up in a BFR cargo bay, but that would seem rather redundant!

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Well this will be a long moment as the timespan between those events will be years.

  • Paul_Scutts

    Hey man, look what 14 billion dollars buys in the public sector these days. 🙁

  • envy

    Hasn’t the EM-1 Orion been at KSC for quite a while already?

  • mfck

    ““Flying Orion on our new SLS rocket represents the beginning of a new era in space exploration,” said Kent Beringer, EM-2 lead with Orion Production Operations at Kennedy.”

    — Sorry, Kent, but it does not. It represents the unfortunate state of affairs of the old, politically driven era of spaceflight and we really had enough of this already. If those Orion vessels could make a sound, “oink-oink” would be it.

    “This Orion spacecraft and the SLS will take humans farther into the solar system than ever before. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

    — Something tells me this would be just factually wrong, by the time this happens