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Orion spacecraft being transported to NASA Plum Brook Station

MILAN, Ohio — Before flying away, a vehicle destined to reach unexplored frontiers of the solar system made a pivotal pit stop in Erie County — home to a one-of-a-kind testing arena necessary for such a groundbreaking journey.

A large motorcade, comprised mostly of emergency vehicles, escorted the Orion spacecraft — part of the Artemis 1 initiative, which involves transporting astronauts into deep space and maybe even Mars — Tuesday morning.

After leaving its initial point from Mansfield, the convoy traveled roughly 45 miles, carefully guarding a 48,000-pound flatbed load, wrapped in a protective white covering, through parts of Huron County, Milan and Milan Township.

The equipment then accessed a back entrance leading into NASA Plum Brook, about a half-mile west of EHOVE Career Center.

Several hundred people lined area streets and waited on grassy lots to catch a glimpse of the historic expedition.

It was “so close I could almost touch it,” said Janet Inez McIntyre-Bedard, who saw Orion near the intersection of Main Street and state Route 113 in Milan Town Square. “Once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

“I wanted to see this because it’s going to become a part of our history, and I can say, ‘I saw it firsthand on its journey,'” said Linda Jackson, who watched it on U.S. Route 250 in Olena.

For about four years now, Plum Brook represents a primary testing hub for activities related to Orion because of its unrivaled experimental chambers.

Before Tuesday, and with a test flight article, or a spacecraft replica, engineers previously analyzed Orion’s capabilities with solar power, noise, temperatures and pyro shocks, which ensured it could separate when necessary.

Through calculations received and conclusions learned on this model, workers integrated the information with Orion’s actual spacecraft when it was elsewhere.

So what’s happening now?

At Plum Brook, engineers will conduct a final round of tests on the spacecraft heading into space. They’ll aim to perfect all systems before it launches sometime next year.

The newest tests at Plum Brook involve Orion going through:

≤ Thermal vacuum testing; Plum Brook houses the world’s largest vacuum chamber, which determines if spacecraft can withstand extreme temperatures — ranging from minus 250 degrees to 170 degrees — found in space.

“We will pull the spacecraft out of the Thermal Vacuum Chamber and reconfigure both the spacecraft instrumentation and the chamber itself,” said Nicole Smith, the NASA project manager overseeing Orion’s testing at Plum Brook.

√ Electromagnetic interference and compatibility tests

“We want to make sure all the electronics perform to their best capabilities and perform well without interfering with one another,” Smith said.

Data obtained through testing helps NASA personnel determine and understand Orion’s effectiveness before several scheduled launches occur.

“All of this testing is to ensure the spacecraft systems operate as they were designed, which will ultimately lead to the success of Artemis I in 2020,” said Smith, adding it’ll occur from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Another date of note, as recently publicized by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine: As part of the Artemis program, he wants astronauts, both men and women, to land on the moon by 2024. No woman has landed on the moon before. And this would represent NASA’s first trip to the moon since 1972, when the last Apollo mission occurred.

NASA officials also envision the Artemis I initiative setting a foundation for astronauts to, one day, land on Mars.

None of this could happen, they said, without Plum Brook’s testing chambers and the subsequent work occurring at the Erie County base.

“Plum Brook Station is incredibly excited to have Artemis I here for the next few months,” Smith said. “Personally, I am so excited, as a female engineer, to be working on the program that will take the first woman ever to the moon.”

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