A successful first test for NASA’s spacecraft Orion

The Orion spacecraft blasting off atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket (Photo NASA / Bill Ingalls)
The Orion spacecraft blasting off atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket (Photo NASA / Bill Ingalls)

The Orion spacecraft was launched in its Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission, its first test flight, on a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral. It performed a series of maneuvers in orbit, also passing through the Van Allen belts. After about four hours, the Crew Module separated from the rest of the spacecraft to splash down after a little while in the Pacific Ocean completing the test. U.S. Navy ships collaborate with NASA for the recovery of the Orion.

The Orion spacecraft – formally Orion Multi-Purpose Crew formally Vehicle (MPCV) – is supposed to be the one that will bring the first astronauts to Mars. It’s also the first built to carry astronauts beyond Earth orbit after more than 40 years. It resembles the old Apollo spacecraft but is designed with far newer technologies.

On the Orion spaceship there’s also a chip that contains the names of all the people who sent their data for a period of several weeks. NASA will send the chip in the next Orion missions as well involving the public in this new space program.

NASA is also developing the Space Launch System (SLS), a new carrier rocket with enough power to launch the mass of more than 20 tons of the Orion spacecraft beyond Earth’s orbit. Maybe it will be ready for testing by 2017 so for the EFT-1 mission it was necessary to use a Delta IV Heavy rocket, which at this time is the most powerful available.

For the EFT-1 mission, the Orion spacecraft isn’t even complete. Only the Crew Module is fully operational while it lacks the Service Module, replaced by a mass simulator. The Launch Abort System was used only to demonstrate the separation of the escape tower that serves to send the crew to safety in the event of an emergency immediately after the launch.

The purpose of the mission EFT-1 is mainly to test the Orion spacecraft’s internal systems but also its heat shields and the huge parachutes used in its reentry into the Pacific Ocean. All data collected during the flight and the examination of the state of the Orion after its landing will be carefully analyzed to determine the next step in the development of the new American space program.

To perform these tests, carried out during the two orbits around the Earth the Orion  touched about 5,800 km (about 3,600 miles) altitude before falling back to more than 32,000 km/h (about 20,000 mph). On the way back, the outside of the Orion touched temperatures estimated at about 2,200° Celsius (about 4,000° Fahrenheit). All the data were recorded for the analyzes by instruments on the spacecraft but also by drones, airplanes and helicopters that followed a part of the trajectory of the mission.

If the results of next year’s Critical Design Review will be satisfactory, it will be possible to proceed with the construction of a full version of Orion. The Exploration Mission 1, which will be the Orion’s first real mission launched by the SLS, could take place in 2018 on a circumlunar trajectory.

This is a long-term project, according to the critics too long. There are many ambitions but also many problems and its costs are already enormous. NASA administrator Charles Bolden called that of the Orion the challenge of a generation. We must really hope that all those efforts lead us to Mars!

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