5th December 2014
NASA conducts first unmanned test flight of Orion
A spacecraft that will take humans to Mars in the 2030s had its first unmanned test flight today.
A major step on the long road to human exploration of Mars was achieved today, as NASA conducted the first test flight of Orion. This new spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral in eastern Florida at 07:05 EST (12:05 UTC) aboard a Delta IV Heavy rocket. It accomplished a series of milestones as it jettisoned a set of fairing panels around the service module, before the launch abort system (LAS) pulled itself away from the craft as planned.
Orion and the second stage of the rocket settled into an initial orbit around 17 minutes after lift-off. Flight controllers put them into a slow roll to keep temperatures controlled while they flew through a 97-minute coast phase. This was followed by upper stage separation and disposal, then splashdown and recovery in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
During four and a half hours of total flight time, Orion made two orbits of Earth, achieving a peak altitude of 3,600 miles (5,800 km), or about 13 times higher than the International Space Station. This high altitude enabled the craft to achieve reentry speeds of 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h; 8,900 m/s), which exposed the heat shield to temperatures up to 4,000°F (2,200°C), or 80% of the temperature that would be experienced upon reentry from a Moon mission.
This was an unmanned test, but Orion will eventually carry astronauts farther into space than has ever been possible before. Data from today's flight will be analysed by the Critical Design Review in April 2015. Alongside this, a massive new rocket – the Space Launch System (SLS) – is being developed to carry payloads of 70 metric tons, with a later version capable of 130 tons. The SLS will perform its first test launch by 2018, with a manned flight around the Moon planned for 2021 and exploration of an asteroid in the early 2020s. If all goes according to plan, the SLS in combination with Orion will send humans to Mars in the 2030s – the first time humanity has set foot on another celestial body since the Apollo era.
The effects of radiation will be critically important in assessing the safety of Orion. Mission planners will analyse the doses recorded inside the cabin on this and future tests, helping to refine the spacecraft's design and evaluate the best way of sending astronauts into deep space. Over 1,200 sensors were placed throughout the crew module to measure all elements of the spacecraft and the details of their performance.
"We're already working on the next capsule," said Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin's Orion program manager, the company that built Orion and operated the flight for NASA. "We'll learn a tremendous amount from what we did today."
Rex Waldheim, who flew on the very last shuttle mission in 2011, told the BBC: "The people that are actually going to fly in Orion – I just can't imagine the thrill they're going to have when they sit here at the Kennedy Space Centre atop the rocket, ready to go to the Moon or to Mars or an asteroid – these incredible destinations. It's just going to be spectacular."