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Orion test flight enters the history books (+video)

NASA's Orion deep-space exploration craft has successfully splashed down after blasting its way past low-Earth orbit.

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    A NASA Orion capsule on top of a Delta IV rocket lifts off on its first unmanned orbital test flight from Complex 37 B at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Friday, at Cape Canaveral, Fla.
    Marta Lavandier/AP
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NASA's newest spacecraft for carrying humans beyond low-Earth orbit passed its initial flight test with a virtuoso performance following a spectacular launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Friday morning.

As if eager to erase memories of a series of delays Thursday morning that postponed the launch by a day, the Delta IV "heavy" rocket carrying Orion left the pad at its first opportunity at 7:05 a.m. ET. 

Nearly 4-1/2 hours later, three enormous parachutes set the capsule into the Pacific Ocean some 275 miles west of Baja California and 630 miles southwest of San Diego – within 1-1/2 miles of the landing spot mission planners had projected prior to launch.

The mission represents the first test flight for Orion, the first craft that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has designed to carry crews to multiple destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, ultimately including Mars. The craft, along with a European-built service module, is in effect the cockpit and crew quarters for NASA's space launch system for deep-space exploration. That system includes a new rocket that when finished will be the most powerful launch vehicle that humans have ever lofted.

The Orion is the first craft designed to carry humans to leave low-Earth orbit since the Apollo program's final trip to the moon in December 1972.

Current plans call for launching a second unmanned Orion capsule, along with the service module, atop the new rocket for a test of the system as a whole in late 2017 or 2018. That would carry the craft beyond the moon and back. A crewed mission would launch in 2021, either to a small asteroid if NASA has snagged one and brought it into lunar orbit by then, or to orbit the moon and return if no asteroid is at hand.

The mission proved to be an emotional one for space-program veterans.

At a post-landing briefing Friday afternoon, the emotion was palpable. Mission managers in suits and ties and gray at the temples exchanged the vigorous handshakes, and enthusiastic gestures typically associated with blue jeans and mohawk haircuts. 

At one point during Friday's post-landing briefing, Mike Hawes, a former top official at NASA and now the Orion program manager at Lockheed Martin, Orion's prime contractor, reflected on his early days at the Johnson Space Center with another briefing participant, William Gerstenmaier, who heads NASA's human spaceflight program.

"Bill and I have been at this a long time together," he said. "When we started at JSC, we started with all of the Apollo guys still there," he recalled, adding in a voice tightened with emotion, "so now, we've finally done something for the first time for our generation. It's a good day."

Orion entered Earth's atmosphere at close to 20,000 miles an hour, some 84 percent of the speed it would reach if returning from the moon. Temperatures on the craft's heat shield approached 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Once the craft landed, recovery crews from the USS Anchorage, an amphibious transport and docking ship leading the recovery effort, headed out to prepare Orion for the next step in the process – using winches to heft Orion into the ship's "well deck," essentially a dry dock beneath the ship's main deck. Once the craft is secured, the ship will return it to San Diego to be trucked to Cape Canaveral for detailed inspection and analysis.

Meanwhile, engineers will have offloaded for analysis flight-test data captured by than 1,200 sensors aboard the craft.

During Orion's flight, the craft performed flawlessly, mission controllers reported, with a small handful of minor twitches.

One of the three video cameras aboard Orion returned images that lacked the expected clarity. On splashdown, only two or three of five air bags atop the capsule inflated. The air bags are designed to set the capsule upright in case it splashes down at an odd angle rather than directly on its heat shield. The recovery crews were able to recover only two of the three main parachutes and did not reach the craft in time to snag the cover that kept the parachutes packed into a storage bay at the top of the capsule.

Given the test objectives for the mission, these were minor inconveniences in an otherwise smooth test flight.

"We had a couple of very key test objectives very early in the flight, within the first six minutes," said NASA's program manager for Orion, Mark Geyer, as the mission progressed.

The craft successfully shed protective covers, or fairings, that enshrouded the structure standing in for the craft's service module. And Orion successfully shed its launch-abort system – designed to speed the capsule away from a malfunctioning rocket during launch and ascent.

"Both of those were huge for us," he said, in no small part because the ability to jettison them when no longer needed reduced Orion's weight, making it easier for the Delta rocket's second stage to propel the craft to an altitude of 3,600 miles on its second and final orbit.   

After leaving low-Earth orbit and beginning its return, Orion also successfully separated from the service module and the second stage – another crucial test of the system.

In addition to putting the heat shield and the full reentry system through their paces, the mission also aimed to test Orion's resistance to radiation in space as it passed twice through one of two radiation-intense regions known as the Van Allen radiation belts. Earth's magnetic field helps shield craft in low-Earth orbit from cosmic rays or intense bursts or charged particles from the sun. Beyond low-Earth orbit, it's every craft for itself.

The concern: Today's computer chips are so densely crammed with components and connections that they present an easier target for random charged particles flitting through the craft than did older, less densely packed chips. Yet these newer chips rest at the heart of Orion's onboard computers, as well as its navigation and flight-control systems. With a radiation sensor on board, engineers will be able to gauge the level of radiation that reached the craft's interior. And they will be checking to see how extensively radiation affected the craft's electronics – and if it did, how well the on-board systems recovered.

If Orion's performance along the way is any indication, the craft's electronics held up well. Each step of the programmed test process occurred as planned and on schedule, and Orion demonstrated controlled precision in following its planned reentry path to nail its splashdown point. 

Looking back on the mission, the challenging environment Orion traversed, and the high hurdles the team set for the craft, "that it flew right down the middle ... was a very pleasant relief," Mr. Geyer said.

[Editor's note: This story was updated at 3:40 p.m.]

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