For the past seven years, San Diego Composites Inc. (SDC) has been working with NASA on the Orion spacecraft, designed to bring humans further into deep space than ever before – even reaching Mars. The company made more than 1,000 parts for Orion’s first unmanned Exploration Test Flight, EFT-1, which orbited earth in December 2014.

Watching the test flight launch was “an amazing experience,” says SDC President Robert Kolozs. Two of the largest parts that SDC currently makes for Orion – the CFRP Fillet and ogive fairing for the Launch Abort System (LAS) – are clearly visible at the top of the spacecraft. Kolozs says it was thrilling to point across the bay during the flight launch and say, “That cone at the top is ours!”

Founded in 2002, San Diego Composites began working with NASA more than 10 years ago when it helped invent a double-bag vacuum assisted resin transfer molding (VARTM) process to address the volatility that can occur when infusing high-temperature polyimides. In 2009, the company began working on Orion as a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin, which manages and leads the Orion program for NASA.

San Diego Composites ogive panel layup

During an ogive panel lay-up, San Diego Composites’ Orion manufacturing team secures bagging materials to the mold. Photo Credit: San Diego Composites Inc.

Ken Mercer, Orion program manager at SDC, says that the company’s first Orion components were CFRP angle brackets used to mount the spacecraft’s outer panels to the aluminum pressure vessel for EFT-1’s crew module and ground test vehicle. SDC supplied more than 100 brackets. “This was a very small part,” explains Mercer, “but we were lucky enough that they have trusted us with larger parts ever since.”

SDC began work on sections of the Launch Abort System in 2011. Positioned at the top of the crew module, the nearly 53-foot-long LAS has several components, including a nose cone, motors, the Fillet and the ogive fairing. If a launch problem occurs, powerful motors pull the launch abort capsule away from the failing rocket within milliseconds.

Mercer says it was challenging to develop a fabrication process for the Fillet. “The first ply down is a lightning strike material,” he says. “The curvatures of the Fillet are such that the copper mesh material is a challenge to put down. We’ve developed techniques over the years to avoid wrinkles and potential damage to that very sensitive material.” The Fillet is a co-bonded structure created by pre-curing the front facesheet and then co-curing the honeycomb sandwich core and back facesheet. Maintaining a good bond line between those two processes requires careful abrading and cleaning to ensure that the interface is not fouled between cure cycles.