In 2003, following the Space Shuttle Columbia accident, a new organization within NASA was formed from the ten NASA Centers and its headquarters. It became known as the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC). The purpose of this new group was to institutionalize teams where expertise from each center, along with industry, and academia, were combined in order to tackle NASA’s toughest technical problems, learn together, and then take the new-found knowledge back to their home organizations.

One of the most important collaborative efforts to come out of the NESC has been the all-composite crew module (CCM), which can be found inside the conical section at the top part of a rocket (envision where the astronaut would be). While testing has only recently been completed, the knowledge the group gained and was able to implement came throughout the process.

The Genesis

In January 2007, NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate chartered the NESC to design, build and test a full-scale crew module primary structure, using carbon fiber-reinforced epoxy-based composites. This charter was scheduled to coincide with the baseline Orion Project, a metallic crew exploration vehicle contracted out to the Lockheed Martin team.

However, this charter originally began in 2006. At the time, NASA was soliciting proposals from prospective companies for design and development of the Orion crew exploration vehicle. Also at that time, NASA formed an internal team to create an independent design of the vehicle so NASA would be more composite savvy when it looked at the companies’ proposals. In other words, the team was becoming NASA’s “smart buyer.” “Our team came up with a metallic crew module, but the Administrator challenged us to look at composites,” says Mike Kirsch, NASA’s NESC principal engineer. “We did a two-month parametric study and found that we could perhaps save 20 percent weight using composites. Then, NASA’s Dr. Mike Griffen and Scott Horowitz advocated the use of composites and charted a six-month feasibility study, ending in September 2006. We concluded that an all-composite crew module (CCM) was feasible and could save on both weight and manufacturability. But if we wanted to quantify advantages of a composite crew module, we’d have to test one. So, three months later we were charted to build a CCM.”