NASA’s Orion spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after completing its first test flight, an unmanned venture that marks a critical initial step in the quest to carry humans to Mars.
Floating beneath three orange-and-white parachutes like the Apollo capsules decades earlier, the crew module’s watery landing today capped a trip that carried it twice around the Earth. Orion blasted off at 7:05 a.m. from Cape Canaveral, Florida, atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket for its 4 1/2-hour excursion.
Orion’s debut sets the stage for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to make the case for the billions of dollars of investment needed to realize the program’s aims: long-range missions to asteroids next decade and to Mars in the 2030s. The craft, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., is NASA’s first spaceship designed to carry humans to the moon – or beyond – since the 1970s.
“A bullseye splashdown for Orion,” said Rob Navias, a NASA TV commentator, as the mission ended. “The maiden flight was picture-perfect from start to finish.”
The launch avoided the issues that derailed yesterday’s unsuccessful attempt, when the countdown was delayed four times, first due to an unauthorized boat too close to the range, twice for wind gusts and finally for a technical issue involving the boosters.
Today, the Delta IV rocket’s three enormous booster engines crackled, sounding like burning timber, as the spacecraft climbed off the launch pad. Hundreds of journalists, NASA employees and curious visitors watched the rocket climb above the trees east of Kennedy Space Center’s giant vehicle assembly building. Within moments it vanished into low dark clouds as its exhaust trail drifted away from the pad.
“It’s exciting. You have these ideas that you want to do, you pull a team together and now it’s doing the job it was designed to do,” said Mark Geyer, the Orion program manager, during the launch. “We still have a long way to go with this mission but at the beginning everything is working like it is supposed to do.”
Orion passed its first tests of new systems “flawlessly,” Geyer said, jettisoning faring panels that protected the spacecraft during liftoff and a launch-abort system designed to one day provide an escape route for astronauts.
The craft reached its apogee, or farthest point from Earth, more than three hours into the flight – an altitude of 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometers). That’s the greatest distance from Earth traveled by a vehicle designed for humans since the end of the Apollo program in 1972. NASA is targeting a trip with astronauts by 2021.
Re-entry involved speeds of 20,000 miles per hour and temperatures as hot as 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,200 degrees Celsius).
While similar in appearance to the Apollo capsules that first flew in the 1960s, Orion was built with 21st-century manufacturing techniques and materials, Bill Hill, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, said in an interview before the launch.
Orion’s Ethernet networking technology can move data 1,000 times faster than current systems on the International Space Station. The craft features dozens of innovations in its crew and service modules, as well as a launch-abort system intended to increase astronauts’ safety on future flights by rocketing the capsule clear of its boosters in the event of a malfunction at liftoff.
The capsule can hold as many as four people, one more than the Apollo vehicles a generation ago. The habitable space has been expanded to more than 300 cubic feet (8.5 cubic meters) – a 45 percent boost in roominess over Apollo’s cabin.
Today’s flight was designed to provide the most challenging tests to the craft as possible. Engineers will harvest data on the capsule’s performance in advance of manned missions and ensure that it can stand up to the radiation and other harsh conditions of space.
“We intend to stress the systems,” Geyer said at a pre- launch press briefing. “We need to make sure it works right before we put people into it.”
The latest capsule has been in development since 2006, when it was commissioned for lunar travel under the Constellation program. The Obama administration canceled the return to the moon in 2010, over budget and years behind schedule, shifting focus to Orion and trips farther into the solar system.
“This is absolutely the first step in a deep space mission that NASA is embarking on,” said Mike Hawes, Lockheed’s Orion program manager, in a Nov. 20 interview.
Lessons learned from today’s trip will be incorporated into the next Orion vehicle, Hawes said.
NASA spent about $4.7 billion on Orion’s development and design as part of the Constellation program and expects to invest another $8.5 billion to $10.3 billion in craft through 2021, the Government Accountability Office said in a May 2014 report.
The agency doesn’t yet have a rocket powerful enough to blast it into space that is also deemed safe enough to transport people. “It’s kind of like sitting in a beautiful Cadillac, without an engine or tires,” said Marco Caceres, director of space studies for Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant.
The Delta IV, built by the Lockheed-Boeing Co. venture United Launch Alliance, is serving as a temporary propulsion system until a next-generation rocket is developed.
Orion will be paired with the new rocket system in an unmanned test flight scheduled for 2018 that will travel 435,000 miles past the moon in an elliptical orbit.
Its next flight, slated for early next decade, will take astronauts to the same region in a 25-day test of humans’ ability to live and work independently of Earth, according to a NASA white paper published May 29.
While Mars’s distance from Earth varies because of the two planets’ orbits, the average is about 140 million miles, almost 600 times longer than the trips to the moon made by the Apollo astronauts.
To help reduce costs for more-routine, near-Earth missions, NASA is turning to private industry, including the company led by billionaire Elon Musk, for tasks such as ferrying freight and astronauts to the space station. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin venture is working on an advanced engine that could power the large new rockets NASA plans to develop in the 2020s.