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NEWS | Nov. 16, 2022

NASA's Orion Spacecraft Modeled and Tested at Carderock

By Todd Hurley, NSWC Carderock Division, Public Affairs

Artemis I, the planned, non-crewed Moon-orbiting mission and first spaceflight in NASA’s Artemis program, successfully launched on Nov. 16 from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. Included in the launch was the Orion spacecraft.

Long-time Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division employees and NASA-lovers alike will remember that, in March 2009, Carderock engineers, alongside a NASA test and evaluation team, designed, fabricated and built two full-scale models of the Orion spacecraft in Carderock’s Model Fabrication facility, one of which was tested at the explosive test pond in West Bethesda, Maryland. This model came to be known as the PORT (Post Landing Orion Recovery Test Article Module). The other was delivered to the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) in Houston to act as an underwater astronaut trainer, and was referred to as the JENOM (Joint Extravehicular activity Neutral buoyancy laboratory Orion Mockup).

Additionally, Carderock built a transparent, one-tenth scale model, which was used to determine worst-case flooding and weight of entrained water. A fourth model was designed and built solely by NASA, that being a quarter-scale model, and was delivered to Carderock, where it was tested at Carderock’s tow tank facilities, and in the outdoor wave pond at the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, to optimize towing configurations and characterize seakeeping and dynamic stability in varying sea states.

Three members of the Carderock team included Richard Banko, a retired aerospace engineer from Carderock’s Maritime Systems Hydromechanics Branch, who was the principle designer and project manager of the PORT and JENOM; Mark Melendez, a mechanical engineer in Carderock’s Surface Ship Hydromechanics Division at the time, created all of the detailed mechanical designs of the models; and Todd Carrico, a former Carderock employee in the Surface Ship Hydromechanics Division, was the naval architect who focused on all of the anticipated hydrodynamic conditions based on where the Orion would land in the water.

“We built two full-scale models for NASA,” Melendez said. “The first one was the big, metallic, full-scale boilerplate called the PORT, which took nearly nine months to complete. It was built to replicate the hydrodynamic behavior of the 606D Orion Command Module. The second one was the JENOM, which we made for use in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston — it was for astronauts to practice ingress and egress in underwater.”

The JENOM capsule mock-up was not high fidelity, was constructed of corrosion resistant materials and only provided the exterior contour of the capsule. It is still being utilized for astronaut training at NBL to inspect, repair or conduct experiments external to the capsule while in space.

Both models were collaboration efforts between Carderock’s Surface Ship Hydrodynamics Division and Marine, Aviation and Unmanned Systems Division.

NASA wanted a high-fidelity Orion capsule for hydrodynamic testing — a boilerplate — because the capsule may be aborted from the Artemis rocket system in the ascent stage of the launch. Therefore, the capsule with astronauts aboard may be susceptible to sea conditions up to 15-feet waves, and may be subjected to seakeeping motions for several hours, or as long as 24 hours.

“The whole purpose was that the para jumpers who would go retrieve the astronauts needed something to practice on, and they wanted a full-scale model to put their hands on so they could actually climb on it and know the ins and outs,” Melendez said. “They were trying to reinvent what they did in the Apollo Program, which meant they wanted to land in the water like they did in the ‘60s, but it had been almost 40 years since anyone had tinkered with any of this stuff, and everyone who initially worked on this had long since been retired. NASA wanted to know what kind of motions to expect from the capsule bobbing up and down in the ocean, so, due to our test and evaluation experience, they came to us to help build this full-scale model.”

The 2009 test of the PORT had an objective of determining the environment for astronauts and recovery crews at ocean landing, while incorporating lessons learned into spacecraft design. Carderock’s test pond provided a controlled environment for NASA space crew recovery personnel to conduct familiarization before testing procedures took place in the uncontrolled waters of the Pacific Ocean.

“NASA came to us in March 2008, and they wanted to get some performance trials with their capsules in actual waves. They wanted to test the action of whether or not the astronauts were going to be able to survive the wave action until somebody could actually come and rescue them from the capsule after landing,” Banko said. “This was a new vehicle based on the Apollo capsules that they did a lot of sea testing with, and they wanted to see how this capsule interacted with the waves in various sea states and try to get indices on the safety of the astronauts as the capsule bobbed on the ocean’s surface.”

PORT, fabricated by Banko and his team, was an exact replica of the Orion capsule that was being designed by Lockheed Martin. This model measured 16.5 feet in diameter and weighed 18,000 pounds.

“They wanted a very high-fidelity test, so we had to model not only the external structure, but also the internal structure to see how water moved around on the inside and any obstructions to the water flow inside the heat shield,” Banko said.

The NASA-built quarter-scale model, WEST (Water Egress and Survival Trainer), was brought to Carderock to test the hydrodynamic performance of the Orion Crew Module (CM), and consisted of two experiments — determining the towing characteristics of the CM in calm water and in a sea state, as well as demonstrating the best tow arrangement for various appendage configurations, and was conducted at Carderock’s tow tank facilities. The second experiment measured the seakeeping performance and was conducted at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

NASA’s Constellation Program Test and Verification officer, Alan Rhodes, spoke highly of Carderock personnel for their efforts on the Orion project.

“The Carderock team has gone far above and beyond our expectations in support of this project that I’m almost at a loss for words of praise,” Rhodes said in an interview in 2009. “When you look at where we started planning a year and a half ago, and look at the finished crew model, and its water testing, it’s truly amazing how well this model was built, how well it fits within the tolerances we’ve asked for it. It’s a test model we will use for years to come, and we have the right team from Carderock to thank for it.”

Originally scheduled to launch in 2016, the mission has been postponed at least 16 times due to technical issues.

“We don’t launch until it’s right,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said. “It's just illustrative that this is a very complicated machine, a very complicated system. All those things have to work.”

The mission is planned to last six weeks, with the spacecraft traveling 280,000 miles from Earth, and thousands of miles beyond the Moon.

Artemis I is the first integrated test of NASA’s deep space exploration systems, and is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration.

The Orion spacecraft, which was built to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before, will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station.

“Just being involved with NASA has been incredible,” Melendez said. “Every engineer dreams of working with NASA, so to see this whole thing come full circle and to know I worked on it and made a significant contribution has been unreal.”

Banko took that sentiment a step further, noting his desire to see this project on display one day.

“I consider the Orion capsule project we did at Carderock to be the highlight of my 48-year engineering career,” he said. “I am glad to see these assets are still in use and have provided valuable information and training for America’s space program. Maybe someday we will see the PORT boilerplate in the Udvar-Hazy museum alongside the Apollo boilerplate capsule.”