Orion Spaceship Goes Long During First Test on the Road to Mars – NBCNews.com

Posted: Friday, December 05, 2014

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — After a sunrise launch, NASA’s Orion deep-space capsule was performing perfectly during its first test flight on Friday, mission managers said.

Liftoff came at 7:05 a.m. ET, one day after a series of snags forced a scrub of the first launch attempt at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. On Thursday, gusty winds and a balky fuel valve kept the United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket grounded, but nothing went wrong on Friday.

“Liftoff at dawn! The dawn of Orion, for a new era of American space exploration!” launch commentator Mike Curie said as the rocket blasted through the clouds just after sunrise.

NASA and its commercial partners are designing Orion to take astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid in the 2020s, and to Mars and its moons in the 2030s. For that reason, NASA portrays Friday’s 4.5-hour test flight as a first step toward deep-space exploration. The mission is known as Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT-1.

“I would describe it as the beginning of the Mars era,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on NASA TV.

Orion’s flight marks the first time since the Apollo 17 moon mission in 1972 that NASA has sent a vehicle that’s being designed to carry humans beyond low Earth orbit.

Far-out trip

Mission managers said the rocket and capsule performed perfectly during the initial phases of the test. “It was just a blast to see how well the rocket did,” said Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion program manager.

After Orion made its first circuit around the planet, the rocket’s upper stage kicked it into a second, highly eccentric orbit that will loop 3,600 miles from Earth. That’s 15 times farther away than the International Space Station.

The space station crew huddled around monitors to watch Orion’s launch. “Awesome!!!” NASA astronaut Terry Virts tweeted from the orbital outpost.

After hitting the top of its orbit, Orion is due to come screaming back into Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 20,000 mph — 80 percent of the velocity that a spacecraft returning from the moon would experience.

Image: EFT-1 mission planNASA

This particular Orion is missing a lot of the components that would be needed for a crewed flight, and it’s not carrying humans. Instead, it’s outfitted with more than 1,200 sensors to monitor how its communication and control systems deal with heightened radiation levels, how its heat shield handles re-entry temperatures that are expected to rise as high as 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and how its parachutes slow the craft down for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Two Navy recovery ships, plus a complement of smaller boats and helicopters, are standing by 600 miles west of Baja California to pick up the capsule and bring it in to Naval Base San Diego. From there, Orion would be trucked cross-country, back to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Although there are no humans aboard Orion, NASA packed a few personages in the payload — including Sesame Street characters and a Captain Kirk action figure. Other mementos flown on the capsule include a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil, an oxygen hose from an Apollo spacesuit and a wide variety of recordings, photos, patches, pins and poems.

Data collected during and after the flight would be analyzed to help the Orion team prepare for the next uncrewed test flight in 2018. A more advanced version of Orion would be launched by NASA’s giant Space Launch System rocket, or SLS, which is currently under development. During the 2018 flight, known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, Orion would fly around the moon and back.

The ride ahead

The first crewed Orion flight is scheduled for 2021, and that could involve sending astronauts around the moon for the first time since Apollo. Farther-out expeditions, including the trip to an asteroid and the buildup to Mars missions, would follow every year or so.

This week’s test is being managed by Orion’s prime contractor on NASA’s behalf, Lockheed Martin, at a cost of $370 million. Geyer said developing the Orion spacecraft costs NASA about $1 billion per year, and NASA estimates that work on the SLS rocket will cost roughly $7 billion between now and its 2018 test flight.

NASA has not yet settled on the designs for the landers and space habitats that would be required for a Mars mission, but officials say they expect those components will be ready to go by the 2030s.

Image: Earth as seen by OrionNASA TV

Critics have targeted the multibillion-dollar price tag for Orion and SLS, as well as the long development schedule and the anticipated flight schedule. “Committing to Orion is committing to an Apollo-like replay, just as with SLS: Few people, infrequent and high cost,” space industry consultant Charles Lurio told NBC News in an email.

At the same time that NASA is funding the development of Orion and SLS, it’s also supporting the commercial development of less expensive “space taxis” that would carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, starting in 2017 or so. In September, the agency set aside $6.8 billion to help SpaceX and Boeing build such space taxis.

SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, has said his company’s Dragon capsule could eventually be used for missions to Mars as well as for shorter flights.

Gallery: Mars Ahead! The Orion Launch in Pictures


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