Sen—After more than eight years of work, NASA's new deep-space capsule sailed through a flawless debut flight on Friday, bringing the prospect of astronauts flying aboard a significant step closer to reality.
"The most perfect flight you could ever imagine in the first flight of a vehicle," NASA mission commentator Rob Navias said after Orion ended its four-hour, 24-minute debut with a parachute splashdown in the Pacific Ocean southwest of San Diego, California.
"Orion provided itself not only a capability vehicle, but a vehicle built to perfection for this first flight test," he said.
The flight began at 7:05 a.m. EST at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a Delta 4 Heavy rocket, the largest in the U.S. fleet. The United Launch Alliance booster put the capsule into an orbit that took it as far as 3,604 miles (5,800 km) above Earth, about 14 times beyond where the International Space Station flies.
From that altitude, Orion beelined back to Earth, slamming into the atmosphere with nearly the force of a spaceship returning from lunar orbit. The 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h) descent spiked temperatures to about 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,200 degrees Celsius) on the capsule's ablative heat shield.
From start to finish, Orion performed flawlessly, Navias said. Details of heating, vibration, radiation levels and other aspects of two-orbit expedition will be retrived from data recorded aboard more than 1,200 sensors embedded in the ship.
Two U.S. Navy ships and a host of support vessels were stationed in the splashdown zone to recover Orion, which landed upright, as intended. The journey back to San Diego, California, is expected to take about three days.
Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin plans to reuse the capsule for a flight test of a launch escape system. A second capsule is under construction for a test run around the moon in 2018 that features the first flight of NASA's new heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket. Astronauts aren't expected to fly until Orion's third mission around 2021.
Eventually, NASA plans to use the capsules as part of a system to fly crews to and from Mars, the ultimate goal of the U.S human space program.
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