NASA successfully completed an un-crewed orbital flight test of the Orion spacecraft on Friday morning. The launch occurred from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 at the beginning of a 2:43 launch window which started at 7:05 AM Eastern Time on Friday. Friday’s launch comes after a scrubbed launch during Thursday’s window. High ground winds caused automated countdown holds twice early in Thursday’s launch window, which also started at 7:05 AM Eastern Time. Wind speeds calmed later in the launch window, allowing for a third attempt at launch. During the third launch attempt Thursday, fill-and-drain valves on the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle’s first stage failed to close properly. Orion splashed down at approximately 8:35 AM Pacific Time and was recovered by a joint NASA and Navy team off the coast of Baja California.
The Orion Test flight, designated Exploration Flight Test-1, was a 4.5 hour, unmanned mission designed to demonstrate major separation events as well as validate systems onboard the Orion module itself. Major separation events include launch abort system jettison and service module fairing separation. Major systems on board the Orion module include avionics, attitude control, and parachute deployment. EFT-1 consisted of 2 orbits: the initial Low Earth orbit at approximately 155 x 552 miles above Earth was achieved after initial Secondary Engine Cutoff. The goal of the second orbit was to achieve the peak altitude. The second stage of the Delta IV Heavy was fired to alter the orbit from a Low Earth orbit to a High Earth orbit in order to achieve peak altitude of 3604 miles.
Shortly after achieving peak altitude, the crew module was separated from the service module and Delta IV Heavy. The Crew Module was set for a high-speed return to Earth, while the service module and Delta IV Heavy were placed in a disposal orbit for splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
At shortly before 4 hours mission time, the control system engines on Orion were fired to re-orient the crew module for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The crew module was decelerated in stages from 20,000 miles per hour to 20 miles per hour at splash down. Splashdown occurred 1 mile away from the pre-flight predictions, a statistical bulls-eye for an object entering Earth’s atmosphere from an altitude of 3600 miles.
EFT-1 was termed “flawless” in NASA press releases as well as on NASA TV during the mission itself, a remarkable accomplishment for a test mission to a domain of space humans last ventured to 42 years ago during Apollo 17.
The Orion Spacecraft
Orion is the United States’ next generation deep space exploration vehicle. It is made up of 3 separate modules: The Launch Abort System, The Crew Module, and The Service Module.
The Launch Abort System is a safety system designed to pull the Orion crew out of danger and position the Crew Module for a safe landing.
The Crew Module provides a safe habitat for up to 4 crew members from launch, throughout deep space operations and landing and recovery.
The Service Module provides power, air, and heat to the Crew Module while the Service Module is mated to the Crew Module. The Service Module also provides propulsion in space for orbit transfers, attitude control, and high altitude mission aborts.
The Space Launch System
The Delta IV Heavy rocket provided sufficient thrust for the purposes of EFT-1, but deep space missions will require a high payload capacity and more thrust than any past or current rocket booster. Enter the Space Launch System. SLS has 2 configurations: an initial lift capability of 77 tons, and an evolved lift capability of 143 tons. To get that much material into space, the SLS generates 8.4 million pounds of thrust in the initial lift configuration and 9.2 million pounds of thrust in the evolved lift configuration, 10 and 20 % more thrust, respectively, than the most powerful US Space Program rocket, the Saturn V, at liftoff. SLS can carry up to 58,000 ft3 of cargo in the evolved lift configuration.
The next Orion mission is Exploration Mission-1. EM-1 will be the first fully integrated mission for the Orion Spacecraft and the SLS. An un-crewed Orion Spacecraft will launch from the Kennedy spaceport into lunar distant retrograde orbit that is farther from Earth than any system capable of being crewed by humans has ever been. Total mission duration for EM-1 is 25 days.
Exploration Mission-2 is manned mission along an identical trajectory as EM-1. EM-2 is scheduled to bring a crew into deep space for up to 2 weeks.
Further in the future is a project to relocate an asteroid to lunar orbit and land a crew on it, as well as exploratory missions to moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, and finally, manned missions to the surface of Mars itself.
Information about EFT-1, Orion, and SLS may be found by visiting the NASA Exploration Systems Development webpage.