Hampton, Va. - Some day, man will explore Mars. When they do, they'll be on Orion.
The NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton is hosting the NASA Orion heat shield that was critical to the success of the spacecraft's first flight this past December.
"The different scenarios that the capsule and the astronauts may see if it's not normal conditions," says Project Manager Ellen Carpenter.
The shield is 16.5 feet in diameter and has a special heat-deflecting material on its outside, protecting the ship from the intense heat of the atmosphere.
Over the next few weeks, NASA Langley will be testing how the shield handles water to see how it would hold up to splash landings in the Pacific Ocean.
Orion's heat shield will undergo water-impact tests at Langley's Hydro Impact Basin next spring. These tests are designed to stimulate landing scenarios for different velocities, parachute deployments, wave heights, and wind conditions that the spacecraft may experience when it splashes into the Pacific Ocean during future missions.
Carpenter explains, "We're going to take it down the street and hook it up to our gantry facility down there, which is a 200-foot structure where we have the capability to pull the test article up - release it so it can fall into a big swimming pool."
The shield is similar to what was on the earlier Apollo ships of the 60's, but bigger and better.
"It's a more advanced material than what we used before," says Dr. Shi-Young Lin, the Structural Sub-System Manager. "This uses a high-tech composite. Apollo used a honey-comb shape. This uses a solid composite laminate which allows it to hold bigger loads than Apollo had."
Orion and this shield has a lot more testing to do before any man travels in it, but seeing these tests shows that mankind is closer than ever to traveling farther than ever.