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New problem found on Orion that could delay its launch by a year

The failure of a power unit on the Orion capsule slated to fly on SLS’s first test flight late in ’21 could delay that test flight by as much as an additional year.

Replacing the PDU isn’t easy. The component is difficult to reach: it’s located inside an adapter that connects Orion to its service module — a cylindrical trunk that provides support, propulsion, and power for the capsule during its trip through space. To get to the PDU, Lockheed Martin could remove the Orion crew capsule from its service module, but it’s a lengthy process that could take up to a year. As many as nine months would be needed to take the vehicle apart and put it back together again, in addition to three months for subsequent testing, according to the presentation.

Lockheed has another option, but it’s never been done before and may carry extra risks, Lockheed Martin engineers acknowledge in their presentation. To do it, engineers would have to tunnel through the adapter’s exterior by removing some of the outer panels of the adapter to get to the PDU. The panels weren’t designed to be removed this way, but this scenario may only take up to four months to complete if engineers figure out a way to do it.

A third option is that Lockheed Martin and NASA could fly the Orion capsule as is. The PDU failed in such a way that it lost redundancy within the unit, so it can still function. But at a risk-averse agency like NASA, flying a vehicle without a backup plan is not exactly an attractive option. It’s still not clear what went wrong inside the unit, which was tested before it was installed on the spacecraft, according to a person familiar with the matter.

None of these options are good. The first two will certainly delay the planned November 2021 launch, which by the way is already four years behind schedule. The third will risk a failure of the mission, which though unmanned would certainly lead to further delays in the manned mission expected one or two years later.

That they don’t know why the unit failed and cannot fix it easily speaks very badly to the design of Orion and SLS. Compare this with SpaceX, which in the past month has demonstrated it can in only days switch out engines on both its commercial Falcon 9 rocket and its new next generation Starship rocket. Moreover, SpaceX has demonstrated repeatedly that once they identify an issue they move immediately to understand it and fix it.

With NASA, Orion, and Orion’s contractor Lockheed Martin, such flexibility and agility appears all but impossible. They have designed a monster that cannot be fixed easily, cannot launched quickly, and costs an ungodly amount of money.

I increasingly believe that Starship will reach orbit before SLS/Orion, even though the latter has been in development for almost three times longer, and will cost 25 times more.

Conscious Choice cover

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  • LocalFluff

    How ridiculous, a year to disassemble and assemble to change a part. A power unit sounds to me like one of the most failure prone kind of parts, they maybe should’ve thought about this scenario. Wasn’t the Orion service module ESA’s contribution?

  • Andrew_W

    To get to the PDU, Lockheed Martin could remove the Orion crew capsule from its service module, but it’s a lengthy process that could take up to a year.

    How long did it take to separate the Apollo capsule from its service module? From what I recall, a few seconds.

  • Dwayne Grassie

    I guess when you don’t design for re-use and maintenance you put devices that can potentially fail in inaccessible spots. On the other hand, I’m sure this is a robust design otherwise, given NASA’s risk aversion. Men’s lives are involved while the world will be watching, so, replace this. Give the order, tell the staff to expedite if possible and let them go to work. I see no way, no compelling reason to fly this like it is.

  • Milt

    As Robert has described with respect to other pieces of consumer technology (washing machines), it is better to design a robust platform with the ability to be easily repaired / upgraded as opposed to building one-shot, essentially throw-away monuments to engineering complexity. And, yes, SpaceX is designing their products for customers, aka *consumers,* while the Never A Straight Answer agency remains encapsulated in its own taxpayer-funded alternate reality bubble.

    “What, Customer Bob, the new space thingy that you bought from us doesn’t work? Well, no problem; we’ll just build you a new one in a year or so.”

    As a wag once observed, “Imagine buying a *car* from NASA…”

  • pzatchok

    Thats worse than auto engineers.

    To change a starter on a car I watched my mechanic cut a hole through the plastic wheel well to get to the top bolt.
    It was cut the hole or disconnect the whole engine and lift it up 5 inches or disconnect the whole front suspension and drop the engine down a foot.

    He cut the hole and changed the starter in 30 minutes then just glued a patch over the hole.

    I can see the problem of getting to the part to change it but a delay of a year? That is just stupid. Think of all the work not being done while this part is being changed.

  • LocalFluff

    I once worked (as a clerk) for a national Ferrari retailer, with the workshop. You know Ferrari, the $3 million collectors’ items that have individual colors named by the guy who painted them. In Europe, where the Orion service module was manufactured. The mechanics in the lunch room talked about stuff like how to best loosen a non-standard bolt without scratching it (because that’d be a shameful failure). And often complained about how those “cars” were not designed to be easily serviced.

    Practical? No, that’s not the business we’re in.

    Monza SP1, they are going retro in their style currently, with a taste of the 1950s here. 800 hp. No windshield(!). The forward half of the beak is practically empty, the V12 is entirely between the wheel axes, Ferrari always does that. The perfect practical guys to hire for space engineering:

  • mkent

    With NASA, SLS, and SLS’s contractor Boeing, such flexibility and agility appears all but impossible. They have designed a monster that cannot be fixed easily…

    What does Boeing have to do with this? Orion is Lockheed’s mess. Boeing has nothing to do with it.

    If anything, this shows the difference between Lockheed and Boeing. When a valve failed on the SLS core stage — a valve also not designed to be replaced — Boeing designed a special tool to swap out the clutch mechanism of the valve without removing the valve from the stage. The problem analysis, tool design, tool fab, spare clutch procurement, repair, and testing only took a couple of weeks.

    I know that to be a member of the SpaceX cult in good standing you have to hate Boeing, but this is a cheap shot.

  • mkent: You are right. My mistake. I will correct the post, replacing Boeing with Lockheed Martin.

  • C Hirner

    mkent: “SpaceX cult”? I would love for Boeing to still be designing and manufacturing great aircraft and spacecraft, but they…ahem….are not performing. I don’t want SpaceX to become the only game in town. Real competition makes for progress.

    My enthusiasm for SpaceX is based on results. The 1980’s have finally come to space! How does that make it a cult? Cheers.

  • Edward

    C Hirner wrote: “I don’t want SpaceX to become the only game in town. Real competition makes for progress.

    This is why I am so disappointed in Blue Origin. I once thought that they could make a good competitor. Sierra Nevada is not large enough to be good competition, but maybe in the not too distant future their successes will allow them to expand. Rocket lab is in a completely different class, and I don’t hear them dreaming much about joining the larger launch vehicle crowd. I am hopeful that Reaction Engines will be successful with their Skylon rocket, as it could provide some real competition for SpaceX.

    You wrote: “I know that to be a member of the SpaceX cult in good standing you have to hate Boeing, but this is a cheap shot.

    Your knowledge is wrong. Boeing has yet to do anything in space that merits what you think is cult-hood-dom. In the last couple of years it has even lost a lot of credibility in general, including its commercial airliner forte. Dropping an SLS tank dome didn’t help any. Boeing is in the dog house for good reason, and it will take time to dig out of the hole it has dug itself into.

    Robert wrote: “That they don’t know why the unit failed and cannot fix it easily speaks very badly to the design of Orion and SLS.

    The power and data unit, (PDU) almost certainly came from another vendor.

    I’m sure that when the SLS valve failed, as noted by mkent, the initial reports were also for long delays. One difference, though, is that once the new PDU is installed, Orion’s systems associated with it will apparently require months of retest in order to be sure that the unit works properly. Right now, the most troubling problem that I see is the lack of knowledge of the root cause of the problem. If it is ultimately a design problem, then there is a larger problem lurking under the surface. I suspect that it is more likely to be a problem with a mere component on one printed circuit board. They try to test infant mortality out of the system long before electrical units are installed, but it does not always work out.

  • Brad

    A person might ask, why?

    Why, after 10 years of development and a cost exceeding ten billion dollars, is there only one potential Orion that might fly in the Artemis I mission? After all this time and money, there isn’t any backup?

    If NASA had a backup Orion available, Lockheed-Martin could afford to take months(!) of time to fix the faulty Orion without needlessly delaying the Artemis I launch. Just one extra Orion could solve not just this headache, but also others that might arise with the next Artemis missions.

    What the Hell?

  • pzatchok

    Old school contractors are working totally off of NASA cash.
    They will never build a second unit until that cash is coming in for it.
    Even if they know they are going to be making more later. Congress could cancel the project.

  • Edward

    Brad asked: “After all this time and money, there isn’t any backup?

    I can see why the confusion exists, especially in light of SpaceX’s very public development program for Starship.

    Usually during a development program, there are a few test units made but there is concentration on building only one of the first flight unit. A second and third may be in the pipeline, but they are not as far along as the first. Even SpaceX’s Crew Dragon was this way, which is why they lost many months of schedule when their first prototype exploded during a routine ground test.

    Starship development is somewhat different. They are working on constructing several test units at a time. This means that lessons learned on one test unit may not be able to be incorporated into the next unit but will skip one or two versions. SpaceX is in a hurry, and they still have several different areas to explore in their experiments, so it makes some sense to make so many versions at the same time. It is possible that, similar to Crew Dragon, SpaceX will not have as many flight units available as they get closer to operational orbital launches. They may, once again, concentrate on their first flight unit, and may lose a few months if something happens to it.

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