History is scheduled to repeat itself.
Sometime in early 2014 a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle will be erected at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 37B. Atop that booster will be positioned an Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). As if to mark 50 years since the first Apollo command module was launched into space from that same launch complex, the Orion will be lofted into space for the first time from the same site on its orbital flight test.
On May 28, 1964 a Saturn I, Block II (the SA-6 launch vehicle) lifted off from Launch Complex 37B. On the top of SA-6 was the Apollo boilerplate 13 command module, its boost protective cover (BPC) and its launch escape tower. This payload was the first piece of Apollo-configured hardware to be sent into space. In that era the plan was to one day have astronauts fly aboard an Apollo spacecraft boosted by the Saturn I, Block II, so the entire Apollo configuration and the booster were being tested as a unit. Also being tested, however, were a number of other things- such as aerodynamic heating on the braces of the launch escape tower as well as on the external protuberances of the overall spacecraft, the integrity of the BPC and the ability of the jettison motor to pull the escape tower from the command module. The flight went into Earth orbit and performed four orbits prior to the planned depletion of battery power. Once the batteries were depleted the boilerplate command module was left on its own as no recovery had been planned. After an additional 50 orbits the inert command module reentered over the Pacific Ocean near Canton Island. All mission objectives were accomplished satisfactorily.
Four more flights similar to SA-6’s configuration were launched from Complex 37B and following SA-10 the launch complex was adapted and used to loft two Saturn IBs. Complex 37 was later abandoned in 1971. The following year all of the launch service structures were removed and the facility remained idle for the next 30 years. In 2002 Complex 37 was "repurposed" for use by the United Launch Alliance for their new Delta IV vehicle. Since then scores of these new launch vehicles have flown from Complex 37.
In keeping with the Congressional mandate that the United States must have a Federal manned access to space beyond low Earth orbit, NASA resurrected the Orion spacecraft from its cancellation by the Obama administration. Under development by the Lockheed Martin Corporation, the political winds have blown the Orion from being the exploration architecture of tomorrow, to a canceled piece of hardware, to a rescue pod for the international space station. Finally, in 2011, it was returned by Congressional mandate to its proper place as America's space exploration vehicle for the future. Oddly, in what can easily be considered as a political face-saving move for the Obama administration, NASA pointlessly renamed the Orion vehicle, (which the president had previously cancelled,) the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle or “MPCV.” Of course much like the additional four digits that the post office pointlessly added to everyone's zip code, almost no one outside of NASA's politically appointed upper management actually calls the vehicle the MPCV- instead everyone just uses the name Orion.
In order for its development to mature, the Orion will have to be flight tested in space. The only operational United States booster capable of lofting the Orion is the Delta IV Heavy. Thus, circumstances have set the stage for history to repeat itself at Launch Complex 37. In the first week of November 2011, NASA officially decided that it would conduct an unmanned Orion flight that is being titled the Exploration Flight Test 1, or “EFT-1.” Now scheduled for some time in early 2014 and using the next Delta IV Heavy in the pipeline, the EFT-1 will fly a mission that is somewhat similar to the SA-6 flight that launched from Complex 37 some 50 years earlier.
Current plans, as of this writing, call for an un-crewed Orion capsule to be mounted atop the Delta IV Heavy and topped with an inert launch escape system. Although that escape rocket will be inert it will carry a live jettison motor. Just like the SA-6 flight, an integral part of this test will be the jettison of the escape system and its boost protective cover. Aerodynamic and thermal effects on the vehicle will also be recorded and studied similar to how they were a half-century ago. Thus, history is currently scheduled to repeat itself at Launch Complex 37.
Unlike the SA-6 flight, however, the EFT-1 mission will also test reentry characteristics of the Orion command module at speeds near to those experienced on a return to Earth from beyond low Earth orbit. The current plans are for the upper stage of the Delta IV Heavy to boost the spacecraft into elliptical orbits with the highest having a 3,671 mile apogee. During the mission the upper stage of the Delta IV Heavy will make the initial orbital insertion burn and then a second burn to alter the orbit to its maximum apogee as well as back into the Earth's atmosphere. NASA hopes to reach a velocity in the neighborhood of 21,000 miles per hour upon reentry. This will test the spacecraft’s heat shield in dynamics similar to those of reentry from beyond low earth orbit. Following reentry the Orion will also conduct a test of the parachute recovery system and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja, California.
So it is that this EFT-1 mission also mimics another historic spaceflight from nearly a half century ago; Apollo 4. Launched on November 9, 1967, it lofted an unmanned Apollo command module atop the first operational Saturn V booster to an altitude of 9,767 nautical miles. It was then thrusted down into the atmosphere by its service module engine in order to simulate the conditions of reentry from the moon.
In its entirety the EFT-1 flight will last just a little over six hours. It will be a spectacular step toward the return of United States leadership in spaceflight. This will also be a terrific demonstration of the Delta IV Heavy’s capability. Although some in the spaceflight community will quibble that the SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy could to do the same job, it's important to point out that the Delta IV Heavy is an operational vehicle at this moment, but the Falcon 9 Heavy is still on the drawing board. It is highly unlikely that the Falcon 9 Heavy can be made ready for the EFT-1 mission within the next 18 months. It is also important to separate what we can do, from what some space fans wish could be done.
In the end of June, 2012 the pressure hull of the EFT-1’s Orion spacecraft arrived at KSC from Huntsville. On the second day of July a large group of the remaining KSC employees as well as political and contractor VIPs gathered in front of the zinc chromate colored vehicle at the Operations and Checkout building and celebrated its arrival. Chief among those speaking was NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, who spoke in glowing terms about the Orion and NASA’s future saying that it “…marks a major accomplishment in the ambitious new American space program that President Obama and Congress have approved.” She neglected, however, to mention the fact that the president had earlier canceled the Orion, then turned it into a rescue pod before the Congress wrote it back into existence as an exploration spacecraft by way of a law which the president grudgingly signed. She then went on to boast that it was just two years prior, in that very same building that, “…President Obama set a goal to send humans farther into space than we have ever been…” Of course she left out the fact that on that same day he had also decreed that the Orion would become nothing more than an escape pod for the International Space Station. Additionally she boasted that the president’s plan would send us to an asteroid 13 years from now and then on to Mars “…sometime in the 2030s…” Gee, how inspirational that schedule is. Later she gleefully announced that the Orion would bring back to KSC about 350 jobs, yet failed to mention that such a job count is about 5% of those lost with the end of the Shuttle program.
In spite of the political slight-of-hand with NASA’s human spaceflight program, at least Orion has survived. With any luck it will be completed and then stacked atop the its Delta IV Heavy. The EFT-1 will become the first launch of a NASA pathfinder spacecraft intended for humans in more than 30 years. It is predictable that the excitement surrounding the mission will be similar to that surrounding the first free-flight drop test of the Shuttle orbiter Enterprise, which took place two years after the final flight of an Apollo spacecraft. That is, of course, if the politicians can keep their hands off of it. Thus, the answer to the question; “What is the EFT-1?” goes a bit beyond the technical explanation of the mission itself. The EFT-1 will be a shot of adrenalin to a NASA that is currently on life-support and in guarded condition.