A spacecraft built for humans left the domain of low-Earth orbit Friday for the first time in 42 years when NASA’s first Orion soared 3,604 miles above Earth and returned safely hours later, having accomplished a flawless flight test as part of NASA’s journey to Mars.
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“We as a species are meant to press humanity further into the solar system and this is a first step,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate. “What a tremendous team effort.”
It was just the kind of mission NASA hoped for, all the while knowing that the first mission by any spacecraft often turns up significant glitches. That was not the case this time though. The cone-shaped Orion held up to all the pressures of launch and ascent into orbit, then made two passes through the high radiation of the Van Allen belts before facing the searing plunge into Earth’s atmosphere and splashing down under three billowing parachutes.
Watching the spacecraft descend through the sky over the Pacific Ocean in real time via an unmanned aircraft system dispatched from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, Orion managers and NASA’s senior leadership seemed to hold their breath until the first drogue parachutes deployed from the nose of Orion. Gasps turned quickly to applause and hugs moments later when the huge main parachutes opened to slow the capsule to a gentle 20 mph splashdown 270 miles west of Baja California.
“It is hard to have a better day than today,” said Mark Geyer, Orion program manager.
Just four-and-a-half hours earlier, Orion sat on the other coast of the country, atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket waiting to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The liftoff had already been delayed by a day because of high winds and then balky fill-and-drain valves. Neither problem showed itself Friday, though, and the three engines of the United Launch Alliance rocket ignited on time at 7:05 a.m. EST to begin a brilliant climb into space. With the core boosters separated, the second stage lifted Orion into its initial orbit and the launch abort system tower and service module support fairings jettisoned as planned, two important system tests for the new spaceship.
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The harsher aspects of the flight came later when the second stage re-ignited to send Orion 3,604 miles above Earth, an altitude 15 times higher than the International Space Station. The spacecraft flew through the high radiation in the Van Allen belts on the way out and then on the way back but its systems held up fine. The spacecraft sent back video shot through its two windows of what Earth looks like from that height.
“The upper stage put us right where we wanted to be and some of those pictures where you could see the frame of the window, you don’t feel like you’re watching like a satellite, you feel like an astronaut yourself,” Geyer said.
“That picture really meant something to me,” said astronaut Rex Walheim, a mission specialist who flew on the final space shuttle mission and is now helping develop this new generation of human spacecraft.
The fiery plunge through the atmosphere came next, with Orion slamming into the thickening air at 20,000 mph, fast enough to produce a 4,000 degree F plasma field around the spacecraft. The test was made strenuous on purpose: spacecraft coming back from lunar orbit are travelling faster than those returning from low Earth orbit, so engineers wanted to test the Orion armor in as realistic a circumstance as they could.
That was the same approach to designing the whole mission, Geyer said.
“We had the models and we have the best people on the planet, but until you fly it, you don’t know,” Geyer said.
Orion touched down about a mile away from the landing spot controllers predicted before launch, achieving a statistical bulls-eye splashdown for something returning to Earth from 3,600 miles away.
Engineers will evaluate all the data recorded on the ground and on the spacecraft’s onboard systems including readings from 1,200 sensors placed throughout the crew module to find out more details about all the elements of the spacecraft and the details of their performance.
“The first look looks really good from a data standpoint,” Gerstenmaier said, comparing watching the well-executed flight to an artist pondering a masterwork.
Orion did not carry any people into space during this flight, but is designed to take astronauts on deep space missions in the future. It became the first spacecraft designed for humans to leave low-Earth orbit since the Apollo 17 mission, the last moon landing by NASA.
“We’re already working on the next capsule,” said Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin’s Orion program manager, the company that built Orion and operated the flight for NASA. “We’ll learn a tremendous amount from what we did today.”
The next spacecraft is being built to fly Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1. It will also fly without astronauts onboard, but will make a much longer flight, this time going around the moon carrying an operational service module to produce power and topping off the first test of the gigantic Space Launch System rocket now under development. Although the Delta IV could get Orion into high Earth orbit, the spacecraft will require the power of the SLS to push it out into deep space.
“I don’t think you could find an astronaut who wouldn’t be excited to fly Orion,” Walheim said, “This is true exploration.”
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