Preparing for Orion’s Ascent Abort-2 Test

This spring has been an exciting time for NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC) personnel. Fresh off its Centennial Year celebration, “A Storied Legacy, A Soaring Future,” the Center witnessed a significant step into NASA’s future with mass properties testing of the nation’s next deep-space manned crew capsule, Orion. What are mass properties, you ask? Mass properties are the physical attributes (e.g., mass, weight, density, center of gravity, radius of gyration, etc.) of an object that determine how it will perform in a particular environment. All objects can be described in terms of their mass properties, including cars, airplanes, rockets and even animals!

Back in February, the Flight Test Management Office (FTMO) here at Langley performed a series of load and location measurements on a full-size replica of the Orion command module (CM) boilerplate. Although this version will not fly into space, it was filled with ballast blocks to simulate as much as possible the actual flight mass configuration that will. By placing those ballast blocks in the known locations of instrumentation and astronauts, mechanical engineers collected the necessary data they need to calculate Orion’s center of gravity (CG).

The Orion command module (CM) boilerplate rotated to near vertical position on the Heavy Universal Proof Load Assembly (HUPLA) in February of 2018 at NASA’s Langley Research Center. [Credit: Chris Giersch, NASA EDGE].

Credit: NASA Langley Research Center Orion Flight Test Management Office, 2017

These calculations have to be incredibly precise. Knowing the exact location of Orion’s CG is crucial to ensuring that the space capsule and its launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS) do not start spinning or tumbling uncontrollably during ascent. In fact, Orion’s CG must be pinpointed to an area on the 11-foot x 16-foot, 22,899-pound capsule no larger than a dime!!

Managers with Orion’s program office at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) will use this calculated CG, and other data collected by Langley’s FTMO team, as NASA prepares for two future tests of the space capsule:  Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) and Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). Orion’s AA-2 flight test, scheduled for early 2019, will verify capabilities of the vehicle’s Launch Abort System (LAS) in the unlikely event of SLS anomalies during ascent. The EM-1 test, which will integrate Orion for the first time with the Space Launch System (SLS), will be an unmanned, approximately 3-week mission beyond the Earth’s Moon.

An artist’s rendition of the Launch Abort System’s (LAS) jettison rockets firing to separate it from the Orion space capsule during the AA-2 flight test planned for 2019 [Credit: NASA Langley Research Center Orion Flight Test Management Office, 2017].

Following the mass properties test, and a painting of the capsule at Langley Air Force Base next door, the Orion CM boilerplate was wrapped in protective packaging and sent on its way to Texas and JSC to continue preparations for next year’s AA-2 flight test. Educators interested in learning more about Orion and mass properties are invited to complete the digital badge, Finding Balance: Rocket Mass Properties, developed in partnership with the Orion FTMO team. The badge will be available later this spring on the NASA STEM Educator Professional Development Collaborative (EPDC) badging system (

Anne E. Weiss, Ph. D.
Educator Professional Development Specialist, NASA STEM EPDC
NASA Langley Research Center