Component failure in NASA’s deep-space crew capsule could take months to fix

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Component failure in NASA’s deep-space crew capsule could take months to fix

Engineers are racing to fix a failed piece of equipment on NASA’s future deep-space crew capsule Orion ahead of its first flight to space. It may require months of work to replace and fix. Right now, engineers at NASA and Orion’s primary contractor, Lockheed Martin, are trying to figure out the best way to fix the component and how much time the repairs are going to take.

In early November, engineers at Lockheed Martin working on Orion noticed that a power component inside the vehicle had failed, according to an internal email and an internal PowerPoint presentation seen by The Verge. Known as a power and data unit, or PDU, the component is a “main power/data boxes,” according to the email, responsible for activating key systems that Orion needs during flight.

Orion is a critical part of NASA’s Artemis program

Orion is a critical part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024. The cone-shaped capsule is designed to launch on top of a future rocket called the Space Launch System, or SLS, a vehicle that NASA has been building for the last decade. To test out both of these systems’ capabilities, NASA plans to launch an uncrewed Orion capsule on top of the SLS on the rocket’s first flight in late 2021 — a mission called Artemis I.

While the SLS still has many key tests to undergo before that flight, the Orion capsule slated to fly on that first mission is mostly assembled, waiting in Florida at NASA’s Operation and Checkout Facility at Kennedy Space Center. NASA had planned to transfer the Orion capsule to the Multi-Payload Processing Facility (MPPF) at KSC on December 7th, though that rollout may be postponed due to this issue. When asked for a comment, NASA directed The Verge to a short blog post published today outlining the failure. Lockheed Martin did not respond to a request for comment ahead of publication.

NASA’s Orion crew capsule, attached to the adapter and service module, with spacecraft adapter jettison fairings installed.Photo by Ben Smegelsky / NASA

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.

Replacing the PDU isn’t easy

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.

If engineers choose to remove Orion from its service module, the capsule’s first flight on the SLS may be delayed past its current date of November 2021. But the SLS has experienced its own set of delays: it was supposed to fly for the first time in 2017 but hasn’t done so yet. It’s not clear if the SLS itself will make the November 2021 flight date either; a key test of the rocket coming up at the end of the year has been pushed back, with no new target date set. So it’s possible that Lockheed Martin and NASA can fix Orion before the SLS is ready to fly.

Any further delays to Artemis I add uncertainty to NASA’s lunar landing timeline. NASA is hoping to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024, though many experts are skeptical that such a mission can be pulled off in time. Artemis I is vulnerable to other possible delays, but the component failure adds one more level of uncertainty to when the Orion and SLS combo will get off the ground.