An Orion capsule, above, built by Lockheed Martin developed cracks inits aft bulkhead after pressure testing. The capsule will haveto be repaired before a
An Orion capsule, above, built by Lockheed Martin developed cracks in its aft bulkhead after pressure testing. The capsule will have to be repaired before a scheduled unmanned spaceflight in 2014. (Courtesy of Lockheed Martin)

JEFFERSON COUNTY — Lockheed Martin Space Systems is revisiting the crew-capsule design of NASA's Orion spacecraft after three structural cracks were found during proof pressure testing of the first flight model at Kennedy Space Center.

"It shouldn't have cracked," said Mark Geyer, Orion program manager at NASA. "We predicted that it was going to be high stress, but we didn't think it would crack."

Geyer and Cleon Lacefield, Orion program manager at Lockheed Martin, were at the company's Jefferson County facility Tuesday for progress reports and to discuss how the cracks happened and what they are doing to fix the problem.

The capsule was designed in Colorado, although much of it was manufactured elsewhere.

(Courtesy of Lockheed Martin)

"The team has a repair in place," Geyer said. "It'll basically distribute the stress across that location. It's a simple repair."

With a history of human life being lost because of spacecraft malfunctions, including the losses of the Challenger and Columbia crews, the rigorous qualification testing that all spacecraft must pass is that much more critical for Orion — the next mission to carry humans into space following the now-retired shuttle program. But project leaders noted that the testing system seems to be working since the flaws were found long before flight.

Lockheed and NASA have decided to repair instead of rebuild the existing capsule because this particular structure will not carry humans.

"For this flight, since it is unmanned, we can fix it and fly it," Geyer said. "When we build the one that we're actually going to put people on, we'll make sure we fix this design."

The three cracks are less than 2 inches long and are on the bottom of the capsule where the bulkhead and the heat shield meet.

While the team explores other possibilities, Geyer and Lacefield suspect they can fix the problem using a doubler — two pieces of metal with bolts through them — to redistribute the pressure across the stressed area.

The doubler fix is expected to be implemented by January and retested at the same time the capsule is scheduled for its next test.

"The design will have more gradual slopes. We are checking some other locations, even though there were no cracks," Geyer said. "But the team needs to go look at everything."

The team has cut out the sections of cracked metal and will analyze them with a high-powered microscope. Once the team determines the design flaw, a permanent change will be incorporated into the new, human-carrying, design.

The qualification testing is meant to put the spacecraft through the most extreme conditions, beyond the stresses it is expected to encounter in space and atmospheric re-entry.

"So that's difficult testing — that's usually when you break things, because you're pushing it to the edge," Geyer said.

Lockheed Martin was granted the primary contract for Orion in 2006, which is budgeted through 2021 at an estimated value of $6.7 billion. The team doesn't expect this to delay its first scheduled orbital launch in September 2014.

"For Lockheed Martin, a lot of the spacecraft-design expertise is here in Denver," said Lacefield. "This is what Colorado does for exploration — they are the design guys."

A total of 1,300 Lockheed Martin employees are supported by the Orion mission, with 550 of those jobs in Colorado — not counting local subcontractors and suppliers.

Next year is a big year for Orion. The entire system for the first launch will be fully integrated, tested and space-ready by the end of 2013. Meanwhile, Lockheed will begin working on the updated design, which will be altered based on the initial test flight.

This is not the first patch of turbulence that Orion has hit in its pathway to launch. The program was nearly canceled in 2010 after President Barack Obama's administration called for the termination of NASA's Constellation program for budgetary reasons.

Orion was repurposed and saved, with modifications, under a new plan put forth by Obama.

"Given the budget challenges that the government is going through, we changed our approach of how we get to flight with this incremental test program," Geyer said. "It allows us to distribute the work to fit the budget, and it also lets us test and fly more."

After NASA launches its cracked-and-repaired capsule into orbit in 2014, it will send another unmanned mission, with the new capsule design, around the moon and back in 2017. This second mission is unique, for it will be aboard a brand-new rocket — the Space Launch System — that will provide enough power to propel Orion deeper into space.

The first manned Orion mission is slated for 2021, with the destination still undetermined.

Lockheed Martin and NASA have worked together to streamline processes and trim the fat from the mission's overhead costs.

"Affordability is part of our work scope now," Lacefield said.