Lockheed Martin’s Orion program aims for Mars
By Jan Wondra
Colorado’s expanding role in space exploration by NASA will help take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before. NASA’s Orion spacecraft, being built at Lockheed Martin in Waterton Canyon in Douglas County, will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry a manned crew to space, with the ultimate goal over a series of missions of reaching Mars by the 2030s. The approximate date for Orion’s next mission, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), is September 2018 and flight operations will be conducted by NASA out of Johnson Space Center in Texas.
“Space is hard – it’s a very unforgiving environment. We have to prove ourselves along the way,” said Casey O’Hayre, systems engineer for avionics on Orion at Lockheed Martin, while discussing the multiple test stages of the Orion vehicle. “I work the physical configuration of all the aviation components on the vehicle—the computer, the guidance system, and the electronics on the Orion. I’ve been in this role for almost two years, and before that I worked as a mechanical engineer on the physical packaging design of the Orion, building the enclosures around the crew.”
About 700 Lockheed Martin employees are at work on the Orion program in Waterton Canyon. Among the stages to which O’Hayre referred, is the Orion vehicle tested last December, which flew two orbits around the Earth. The exploration vehicle this team develops will ultimately carry a crew into space, sustain the crew during space travel, provide emergency abort capability if needed and provide safe re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.
“It’s called Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1, and this will be a stepping stone toward human deep space exploration,” said O’Hayre. “Ultimately, these missions will build up to a manned mission to Mars. These stages are important. The September 2018 mission is a full-up vehicle with all the life support systems in place. We’ll go beyond low-earth orbit and into a transfer orbit around the moon. The EM-1 will be in orbit for 17 days.”
O’Hayre stressed how much this mission is an international effort.
“The largest chunk of workers is in Waterton Canyon because we are the prime contractor on this mission. But the development crew is spread out across the country,” said O’Hayre. “Between Lockheed Martin and NASA, we have people in 30 different states working on this and a collaboration with the European Space Agency.”
O’Hayre was frank about the greatest challenges for the Orion team developing the EM-1 craft.
“From my time working on aerospace projects, I can tell you there are a lot of things that are problems that we have to solve to go into space. Some of them, until recently, weren’t recognized as the huge problem they are,” said O’Hayre. “One of the biggest is the radiation environment – every piece of electronics we put on board has to be proven to be radiation-proof. The level of radiation (in space) fries electronics—it’s also detrimental to humans.”
That radiation comes from a deep space, from the sun and from belts of energetic charged particles held in place around the Earth by its magnetic field.
“Its cosmic radiation, and solar radiation, and also from the Earth’s Van Allen belt,” said O’Hayre “We got a better understanding of this with EFT-1 (Exploration Flight Test-1). With the next Orion craft, we’ve built in conditions to protect people. We have sensors for detecting radiation and a shelter on board that can protect the astronauts.”
O’Hayre admits that his passion for space not only goes far back in his own history but that it is linked to human’s fascination with discovering our place in the universe.
“Getting to have a hand in space exploration to go beyond where we’ve been before, and getting to have a hand in a mission that will go to Mars to put humans back on the road to exploring deep space is thrilling,” said O’Hayre, who did consider applying to be an astronaut on the Mars mission. “We’re designing this for a long mission and we’re taking into account what the crew is going to need. This is going to be their home for nine months.”
Asked why the Orion mission to Mars is so worthwhile, O’Hayre turned thoughtful.
“Humans have an innate desire to explore and this is our next step in exploration,” said O’Hayre. “Actually going to another planet and finding out what is there, will help to understand our own planet better. Mars most likely used to have a more hospitable environment. We need to find out what happened to Mars. Where did the water go? Personally, I think the ultimate goal is that human beings should be a multi-planet species.”