Hampton, Va. - NASA scientists are working to get humans back in space. But before an astronaut can be sent on a mission, a lot of testing has to be performed on a spacecraft to make sure the vehicle is safe.
A mock-up of NASA's Orion spacecraft recently made a trip from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton. In the coming months, scientists will test the Orion's crew module, which will give engineers insight into how the capsule performs under ocean and landing conditions.
"The Orion Project is our next big spacecraft that will be able to take us to deep space," said Carrie Rhoades, SPLASH Chief Engineer at NASA Langley.
Although the full-sized test version crew module at NASA Langley will not be traveling to space, the testing done to the module will help researchers develop a safe spacecraft similar to it, that will one day in the future take astronauts to destinations never explored before.
"We want to make sure we put people up and bring them back safely," said Rhoades.
NASA researchers will conduct static and water impact loads evaluations on the module at NASA Langley's Landing and Impact Research Facility. The tests will simulate water landing scenarios for different velocities, parachute deployments, wave heights and wind conditions - conditions the spacecraft may encounter when it lands in the Pacific Ocean after a space mission.
"This is a huge deal to be able to test something this important to the space program because if we go out to Mars and everything, it would just be terrible to have a failure on the end as we're coming back landing," said Richard Boitnott, test engineer for the Orion Project.
The Orion is scheduled to go on its first test flight this September, traveling 3,600 miles above the Earth, reentering the atmosphere at 20,000 mph, with temperatures close to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Although no humans will be on board the test flight, the capsule - the size of an SUV - can hold four astronauts on a real mission.
"People don't even realize that certain things they use daily come from the space program, and we're continually developing new things that get used out in the regular world," said Rhoades.
If the Orion test flight goes well, the first full-scaled non-human flight is slated for 2017 - the next generation spacecraft that could take astronauts to Mars in the future.