NASA’s Orion has ‘bull’s eye’ landing after test mission – USA TODAY
On the second attempt day, NASA successfully launched Orion from Cape Canaveral Friday morning. A future phase of the mission is to take astronauts first to an asteroid and eventually to Mars, possibly in the 2030s.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — An unmanned capsule NASA is designing to carry astronauts to an asteroid and eventually Mars splashed down in the Pacific Ocean Friday to conclude a successful first test flight.
After two laps of Earth, the Orion spacecraft plunged through the atmosphere at 20,000 mph, enveloped in a fireball that scorched its heat shield with temperatures up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The capsule emerged intact from its 3,600-mile fall and deployed three orange-and-white-striped parachutes to brake its speed to 20 mph as it hit the water at 11:29 a.m. EST, 270 miles west of Baja California.
NASA called it a “bull’s eye” landing.
“There’s your new spacecraft, America,” Mission Control commentator Rob Navias said as the Orion capsule neared the water.
Navias called the journey “the most perfect flight you could ever imagine.”
The scene of a potential deep space crew capsule bobbing in the ocean, four-and-a-half hours after launching from Florida, recalled the last return of astronauts from Apollo moon missions 42 years ago.
Recovery crews immediately began efforts to tow the capsule to a waiting Navy ship, where heat shield inspections will begin and data from 1,200 sensors will be secured on the way back to a San Diego port this weekend.
The $375 million Exploration Flight Test-1 mission blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station just after sunrise at 7:05 a.m., on the mission’s second attempt.
“Liftoff at dawn, the dawn of Orion and a new era of American space exploration,” said NASA TV commentator Mike Curie.
The agency reported some positive results, saying onboard computers were unaffected by high radiation in space.
The capsule reached a peak altitude more than 14 times farther from Earth than the International Space Station. No spacecraft designed for astronauts had gone so far since Apollo 17 — NASA’s final moon shot — 42 years ago.
NASA needed to send Orion that high in order to set the crew module up for a 20,000-mph, 4,000-degree entry. That was considered the most critical part of the entire flight — testing the largest of its kind heat shield for survival before humans climb aboard.
In 11 minutes, Orion slowed from to 20 mph at splashdown, its final descent aided by eight parachutes deployed in sequence. A crew on board would have endured as much as 8.2 Gs, or 8.2 times the force of Earth gravity, double the Gs of a returning Russian Soyuz capsule, according to NASA.
RAW VIDEO OF LAUNCH:
NASA’s unmanned Orion spacecraft blasted off Friday. Its first launch attempt was scrubbed Thursday due to several factors, including wind. NASA hopes the spacecraft will eventually take astronauts to Mars.
Riding atop a 243-foot United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket firing three booster engines with a combined 2 million pounds of thrust — the most powerful rocket available today — Orion rumbled slowly from its pad into a low layer of clouds while onlookers at Kennedy Space Center cheered.
They included U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., one of the architects in Congress of NASA’s human exploration program, who echoed NASA in calling the event “the dawn of a new era in spaceflight.”
Not everyone is as optimistic about the program, which calls for another unmanned test flight in 2018, launched by a giant new NASA rocket, then a first mission with a crew no sooner than 2021.
NASA has spent more than $9 billion over a decade on the Orion program, which was threatened with cancellation four years ago.
Without a habitation module or lander, Orion will be limited during its early missions to flights in the vicinity of the moon lasting up to three weeks.
NASA is studying a potential mission that would robotically grab an asteroid, or a piece of one, and drag it to an orbit near the moon where astronauts could reach it within a decade or so.
The long-range goal is to send people to Mars by the 2030s, but that will require budget increases that are not anticipated in the near-term.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said before the launch that the test flight represented “history in the making,” as the first flight beyond low Earth orbit in more than 40 years of a spacecraft intended to carry people.
“I don’t want people to get focused on the destination,” said Bolden. “This is a journey.”
After another unmanned test flight in 2018, launched by NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket, the first launch with a crew could happen by 2021.
Contributing: The Associated Press