The Union Recorder

Columns

February 28, 2012

A lot riding on Orion

MILLEDGEVILLE — The end of the Space Shuttle era was an economic disaster for many employees at Kennedy Space Center. The considerable workforce needed to maintain and refurbish the orbiters, boosters, parachutes and everything else connected to the program was a busy bunch — every shuttle turnaround required shits that worked around the clock.

Many workers got laid off during the last few flights, and at the end it was lights out for many more. If you’re a space shuttle technician you’re probably a highly-trained individual, and you’d be able to work on just about anything, but what if you’ve lived and worked in Florida pretty much all your life, what are you supposed to do? Uproot the family and move somewhere else — that’s the name of the game.

A few lucky ones, though, got to stay on and switch over to the Orion crew capsule. The first space-going unit is being built by Lockheed Martin right now, and when it gets transferred to KSC a small army will start working on it round the clock, installing critical components to ready the capsule for its maiden flight in late 2013 or early 2014.

With the ever-shrinking budgets available, thriftiness is the name of the game. So this first capsule will not get to move on to a much-deserved quiet museum job somewhere —it will be reused for an abort test scenario.

Just like the crew capsules of the old Apollo moon rockets Orion will have a special escape system — a set of small but very powerful rockets attached to the top of the spacecraft. If anything goes wrong with the large rocket during the launch the capsule will disconnect from its body and the escape boosters will pull it to safety.

This is exactly the system that would have saved the crew of the Challenger. When explosive decompression ripped the shuttle’s external tank apart the crew had no choice but go down with the orbiter. Early designs of the orbiter considered a pull-apart section of the spacecraft, where the crew compartment could have been separated from the rest of the stack and boosted to safety. Alas, it was determined to be prohibitively expensive, and so the idea was never pursued. Still — how do you put a price on a human life?

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