NASA test drives all-composite prototype spacecraft

NASA experiments with lighter, stronger composite spacecraft materials

Composite spacecraft
With an eye toward building safer, lighter and tougher spacecraft, NASA said today its prototype space crew module made up of composite materials handled tests simulating structural stresses of launch and atmospheric reentry. 

The idea behind NASA's Composite Crew Module (CCM) project is to test new structural materials for possible future NASA spacecraft. According to NASA, composite materials are being looked at because they are stiff and lightweight and can be formed into complex shapes that may be more structurally efficient. In space travel, where every additional pound of weight drives costs higher, any weight savings provides increased payload capacity and potentially reduces mission expense, NASA stated. 

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The CCM is an all-composite representation of the part-metal, part-composite flight crew module Orion, which is part of the space agency's Constellation program and is being tested by NASA's Engineering and Safety Center's (NESC).  NESC tests NASA's high-risk projects to ensure safety and to help it avoid future problems. 

NESC mounted the full-scale test CCM into a custom-built rig for static testing at NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va. Internal pressure and forces were  applied to critical parts of the module, simulating the stresses it would encounter as it carries astronauts during a space flight. 

"We pressurized the module to twice Earth's atmosphere to demonstrate the ultimate design capability of the structure, and followed that by pushing and pulling it to simulate the forceful tug of the different mission phases," said Mike Kirsch, manager of the CCM project in a statement. 

For the push and pull tests, the CCM was blanketed with 318 strain gages -- fiber optic cables generating about 3,500 channels of data -- and 80 acoustic sensors that listen for fiber breaks in the composite lay-ups during the testing. In addition, a stereo video system focused on complex-shaped zones of interest to generate a computerized view of surface deformation, NASA stated. 

According to NASA future testing will gauge the structure's resistance to damage, culminating in a planned test to failure. 

The crew module structure was fabricated by Alliant Techsystems (ATK). Its top and bottom halves were joined by hand using a stiffened honeycomb sandwich of carbon fiber impregnated with resin, heat- and pressure-treated in an autoclave, then spliced together using local heaters. During buildup of the two halves, many of the critical, orthogonal joints were assembled by the use of preformed three dimensional weaving technology, known as Pi joints, NASA said. 

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