Welding Innovations Improve Orion Spacecraft

Written by: James Wilkey
Written by: James Wilkey









October is rapidly turning into an astronomical month for NASA. The box office success of the Martian survival saga and the recent announcement of water on Mars is kicking American interest in space into overdrive. In fact, there seems to be no shorter of cosmic coverage.

But while dreams of Mars may be stealing the show, the beginning of October also marked a major milestone in the development of space age technology that will help bridge the gap between fantasy and reality, and perhaps even between planets.

With the end of September came the celebration of NASA and Lockheed Martin’s first month of welding on the groundbreaking new spacecraft Orion. A prototype of the Orion module, called Pathfinder, was constructed last year as a means of testing new weld techniques and manufacturing methods that have gone into the development of the remarkable new vehicle. To read more about the prototype, see Welding Our Way to Mars.

Exploration Flight Test-1

Among other design innovations, the Orion will be the first fully friction stir-welded vehicle to ever fly in space. Lessons were quickly learned as the new manufacturing methods were implemented. “After going through the manufacturing process for the Exploration Flight Test-1  (EFT-1) vehicle, we determined we could reduce the vehicle’s weight if we lessened the number of pieces being welded together since those areas weigh more,” said Mike Hawes, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Orion project.

In other words, while building the Orion pathfinder, a full-sized prototype of the crew module that will one day carry humans to Mars, engineers realized that it could be built with fewer welds. This reduction in the number of welds reduced the Orion’s overall weight while maintaining its original functionality. “So for this next spacecraft, seven bigger pieces are coming together, instead of the eighteen for EFT-1, which makes the welding process a little more challenging than before,” Hawes said.

Challenging, but worthwhile. Reducing the weight of the craft is just a small part of the Orion design team’s overall focus on safety for the crew flying the vehicle. To help ensure consistent quality in the welding procedures used on the Orion, each new welding process had to be certified. “We used the pathfinder to make sure we weren’t being too ambitious with our design changes,” said Hawes. Remember, at the speeds and conditions the Orion will be exposed to, one small misstep could be fatal.

Friction-stir welding connects Orion spacecraft’s tunnel and forward bulkhead.
Friction-stir welding connects Orion spacecraft’s tunnel and forward bulkhead.

So far, Lockheed Martin and NASA engineers successfully completed welding on the craft’s tunnel and forward bulkhead. Astronauts will use the tunnel as a passageway to enter and exit the Orion when it’s docked with another vehicle. The forward bulkhead forms the roof of the crew module, making it one of the most critical components on the ship. The bulkhead not only shields the crew from the deadly void of space, but must also handle the extreme forces and temperature of reentry.

Finding the balance between keeping the ship light for takeoff, yet durable for space and reentry, is a major part of why something as simple as reducing a few welds can make a huge difference in space flight. Although the Orion is coming along nicely, in spite of the redesign, its maiden voyage is still some time away. The first manned Orion mission isn’t scheduled until 2023. Still, NASA and Lockheed Martin engineers remain dedicated and optimistic about the craft’s future and completion time. The Orion team is pursuing an aggressive internal goal of finishing the craft by 2021.

Whether it’s science-fiction or science-fact, one thing is for sure: it’s a stellar time for space enthusiasts.

Evolution of the Orion Spacecraft CLICK TO ENLARGE
Evolution of the Orion Spacecraft

Learn More:
Orion Spacecraft (NASA)
Welding Process for Next Orion Spacecraft Begins (Lockheed Martin)

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