Robots prep NASA spacecraft for human Mars mission

When NASA sends astronauts into deep space, they’ll be traveling in the new Orion spacecraft.

And thanks to the work Textron Defense Systems and Lockheed Martin are doing on a new heat shield for Orion, those astronauts should make it safely back to Earth.

Textron and NASA teamed up this week to show off the work that’s been done on this new heat shield. Along with some top science students (think of being surrounded by the cast of The Big Bang Theory) I visited Textron’s manufacturing facility in Wilmington, Mass, got a glimpse of the shield and learned what it takes to make it capable of protecting a spacecraft from 5,000-degree heat. 

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A heat shield is being built for Orion, which is expected to take astronauts into deep space. CREDIT: Sharon Gaudin

“This is a key first step in taking us back into space and on to asteroids, the moon and Mars,” said Dan Dumbacher, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems at NASA. “This heat shield is a key piece to take us beyond Earth orbit.”

Since NASA’s fleet of space shuttles used tiles to protect it from the intense heat generated when it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, this is the first time that NASA has had a heat shield built since one was needed for the Apollo space program in the 1960s.

And, surprisingly enough, the technology behind it isn’t all that different than what was used more than 40 years ago. One Textron worker told me that’s because Apollo’s shield was based on a great design and, well, physics simply hasn’t changed much in the last several decades.

Lockheed Martin built the base of the shield and then shipped it to Textron this past March. There, a honeycomb-like structure that covers the bottom of the shield is filled-in with a heat-resistant putty-like material. Textron won’t divulge what it’s made of.

There are about 330,000 cells in the honeycomb that covers the heat shield, which measures 16 feet and 4 inches in diameter. Textron workers painstakingly fill in every one of those cells by hand.

After that, bring in the robots. 

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This is x-ray robot checks the heat shield for flaws.

The x-ray robot gives technicians a much more accurate examination, making it a much safer structure.One robot, for instance, has an x-ray machine on its head and it images all of the filled cells, checking for bubbles, cracks or other defects. One defective cell, according to a Textron worker, could pose a hazard for a spacecraft racing through Earth’s atmosphere.

And that’s critical since a spacecraft returning from the moon would be traveling about 25,000 miles per hour and even faster if it was returning from a trip to Mars. At that speed, the craft will be dealing with about 5,000-degree temperatures.

Rex Walheim, who is an officer in the U.S. Air Force and a NASA astronaut who has flown on three space shuttle missions, is keenly aware of how critical the heat shield will be to Orion.

“With the heat shield, either it works or it doesn’t,” said Walheim, who flew on the last shuttle mission before the fleet was retired in 2011. “This heat shield, which will be on Orion, will go farther than humans have ever gone before.”

The Orion spacecraft is scheduled for its first unmanned test flight in September of 2014 when it will fly 3,000 miles above Earth. Then in 2017, it will make another unmanned test flight, this time flying around the moon and back.

In 2021, Orion should make its first flight with astronauts aboard, though NASA hasn’t yet decided what its destination will be.

“Orion’s job is to do things we’ve never done before and go places we’ve never gone before,” said Mark Geyer, Orion program manager for NASA. “We’re talking about nudging an asteroid into orbit around the moon and then Orion would take astronauts up to examine it.”

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