NASA’s inaugural Orion spaceship has set sail on a two-orbit, four-hour shakedown cruise around the Earth, leaving port atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket and its incandescent power at 7:05 a.m. EST today.
The 46,000-pound craft rocketed into its preliminary orbit, setting the stage for a coast period and another engine firing by the Delta 4-Heavy rocket later this morning to put Orion on a trajectory to travel 15 times higher than the International Space Station before re-entering over the Pacific Ocean and splashing down 600 miles southwest of San Diego at 11:23 a.m. EST (1623 GMT).
“This is going to be a vehicle that could fly for us for 30 years, potentially, and this is the first one, the first tailnumber coming out the chute. This is like the forefather of this great fleet of vehicles that’s going to be coming online,” said astronaut Rex Walheim, part of the Orion development team and member of the final space shuttle crew.
The Orion Spacecraft in development. This image shows its heat shield.
“This is the opening of a new era. It is the opening of the Orion program. It’s really exciting because it’s that transition we have been waiting for. It’s been about three-and-a-half years since I last flew on the space shuttle (and) closed the program down with the anticipation these new programs would be coming along. Now here we are. It’s really exciting to see the first flight of Orion,” Walheim said.
This mission is known as Exploration Flight Test No. 1 (EFT 1) to gather real-life data on the performance of Orion’s avionics, software, radiation protection, heat shield, parachutes and recovery systems.
“EFT 1 is a compilation of the riskiest events that we are going to see when we fly people. So this test flight is a great opportunity to fly those and see them in operation. Some of these events are difficult or even impossible to test on the ground. EFT 1 gives us a chance to put all those together,” said Mark Geyer, Orion program manager.
“Using the Delta 4 heavy gets us 15 times higher than space station and about 84 percent of lunar entry velocity,” he said.
“So we start seeing that different physics, we start seeing those very high temperatures, high velocities, so that’s one of the big things we’ll test.
“And as we go through the Van Allen belts, we’re going to see this radiation effect on the computers. We’re going to measure, with dosimeters, the environment but we’re also going to see how the avionics behave, which is actually more important, and how do our mitigations work?”
As for re-entry, “we have a lot of parachutes because we need to slow the vehicle down from about 300 mph to 20 mph, so we do that in stages,” he said.
“We’ve done a lot of drop tests out in Yuma (Arizona) and looked at failure cases, but until you’ve actually dropped it in the exact air density and speed you’re going to see, we’re certainly going to learn stuff from that.”