Reaching a pinnacle in its nine-year development program, NASA’s next-generation Orion deep-space exploration craft soared through a picture-perfect test flight today to mark a major milestone in NASA’s plans to return to human space exploration with sights firmly fixed on Mars. Exploration Flight Test-1 was Orion’s first mission and the first “real-life” test for many of its subsystems, including avionics and the critical heat shield that will protect astronauts from the heat of re-entry. A resounding success by all accounts, EFT-1 sets the stage for continued development of Orion and the Space Launch System NASA is targeting for first launch in mid-2018, to be followed by crewed missions in the next decade.
“We as a species are meant to press humanity further into the solar system and this is a first step,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate. “What a tremendous team effort.
“Today’s flight test of Orion is a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space on our Journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “The teams did a tremendous job putting Orion through its paces in the real environment it will endure as we push the boundary of human exploration in the coming years.”
Topped by the 46,000 pound Orion and its arrow-like launch escape tower, the 23-story tall tri-barreled Delta IV Heavy rocket blasted off a day later than planned. Launch attempts on December 4 were scrubbed in the final minutes because of inclement weather, balky liquid hydrogen fill-and-drain valves and a stray boat that was quickly cleared out of the area. In the end, engineers were unable to resolve a problem indicating the hydrogen valves were not closing properly before the 2 and a half hour launch window expired.
Despite overnight rains and an overcast sky this morning, the rocket coasted through the final hours of today’s countdown. Finally, clocks reached T-7 seconds and Delta’s three massive Common Booster Cores roared to life, bathing the launch pad in a ball of fire as the RS-68 hydrogen-oxygen engines reached full thrust. As the count reached zero, the 1.6 million pound rocket slipped off the launch pad, giving life to the dreams of thousands of engineers and workers across the United States who have worked on the program since its inception nearly a decade ago.
The world’s most powerful rocket slowly lifted of the launch pad on top of 2 million pounds of combined thrust, the pounding of its thrust toppling cameras and other equipment near the launch pad.
“And liftoff, at dawn. The dawn of Orion and a new era of space exploration,” exclaimed NASA launch commentator Mike Curie.
Gathering speed, the orange and white Delta IV quickly disappeared into low clouds that had descended over the Space Coast overnight, leaving behind thousands of awed spectators who had gathered to witness history bathed in the roar of its climb to orbit. For the rest of the mission, cameras onboard the launch vehicle and inside Orion provided views of critical events to controllers on the ground and viewers watching NASA TV.
Four and a half minutes after launch, the two outboard boosters had exhausted their fuel and were jettisoned to fall back into the Atlantic Ocean. The center stage continued powered flight for another 90 seconds before it too was cast away to leave the Delta’s 24,750 pound thrust upper stage with the task of completing Orion’s journey to orbit. Seconds later, the three outer panels covering the service module were released, and event visible from onboard cameras, followed by escape tower jettison.
The second stage Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10B-2 engine burned for nearly 12 minutes, placing Orion into an initial 115 by 552 mile orbit about 17 minutes after liftoff. Flight controllers put Orion into a slow roll, called a “barbecue roll”, to keep its temperature controlled while the spacecraft flew through a 97-minute coast phase. In space, surfaces exposed to direct sunlight become very hot while those in shadow plunge to cryogenic temperatures. Just like a restaurant rotisserie, the slow rolling maneuver ensured that no part of the spacecraft became too hot or cold during the coast.
The second stage ignited for a second time nearly two hours into the flight to send Orion higher than any human-capable spacecraft has flown since 1972. Hurtling toward an apogee 3,609 above Earth, 15 times higher than the orbit of the International Space Station, Orion experienced its first major test as it raced through the Van Allen radiation belts. This was a key point in the test flight as instruments inside Orion record the radiation doses inside the cabin – critical data for mission planners considering the best way to safely send astronauts into deep space in the future. The radiation is so intense that Orion’s cameras were turned off during its passes through the belts to protect their delicate imaging sensors.
“Really, we’re going to test the riskiest parts of the mission,” Geyer said. “Ascent, entry and things like fairing separations, Launch Abort System jettison, the parachutes plus the navigation and guidance – all those things are going to be tested. Plus we’ll fly into deep space and test the radiation effects on those systems.”
Three hours, 23 minutes into flight, the Orion crew module flew on its own for the first time following separation from its service module and the Delta IV Heavy second stage.
“The upper stage put us right where we wanted to be and some of those pictures where you could see the frame of the window, you don’t feel like you’re watching like a satellite, you feel like an astronaut yourself,” Geyer said.
“That picture really meant something to me,” said astronaut Rex Walheim, a mission specialist who flew on the final space shuttle mission and is now helping develop this new generation of human spacecraft.
On its way back down from apogee the spacecraft was pointed nose-first at Earth’s atmosphere. Another of the many critical test phases of the mission, Orion used its onboard computers to reorient the spacecraft to place it in the right position with its heat shield forward, ready to bear the brunt of intense re-entry heating more severe than ever experienced by the space shuttle.
While Orion’s orbit had an apogee over three thousand miles high, its low point, or perigee, was actually -23 miles, that is, 23 miles below ground. This had the effect of automatically placing Orion on a re-entry trajectory without the need to retro-rockets to slow it down first. In fact, once the upper stage completed its second burn, Orion’s destiny was sealed and already on a path toward atmospheric entry.
Orion’s big test, its “trial by fire”, came four hours, 13 minutes after launch when the craft smacked into the upper reaches of the atmosphere at 20,000 mph. At that velocity, Orion encountered approximately 80 percent of the heat it would endure during a return from lunar orbit with astronauts aboard. Reminiscent of the Apollo days, contact with Orion was lost for 2 1/2 minutes during a re-entry blackout when plasma of superheated air surrounded the spacecraft and blocked all radio communications.
To the elation of flight controllers, Orion emerged from silence in perfect condition as it slowed to subsonic speeds. At this point, a rapid succession of events began the final phase of Orion’s test flight beginning with jettison of the forward bay cover, the “cap” over the top of the spacecraft. This allowed the parachute deployment sequence to begin.
Watching the spacecraft descend through the sky over the Pacific Ocean in real time via an unmanned aircraft system dispatched from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, Orion managers and NASA’s senior leadership seemed to hold their breath until twin drogue parachutes deployed from the nose of Orion. Gasps turned quickly to applause and hugs moments later when the huge main parachutes – the largest ever manufactured for a manned spacecraft – opened to slow the capsule from 300 mph to a relatively gentle 20 mph and splashdown a few minutes later 270 miles west of Baja California.
Orion splashed down about 600 miles southwest of San Diego at 11:28 a.m. EST. The landing was approximately one mile from the predicted splashdown point, a virtual bulls-eye for a parachute descent from orbital velocity.
After about four hours, 23 minutes, Orion will be bobbing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California as recovery forces move in.
“It is hard to have a better day than today,” said Mark Geyer, Orion program manager.
During the uncrewed test, Orion traveled twice through the Van Allen belt where it experienced high periods of radiation, and reached an altitude of 3,600 miles above Earth. Orion also hit speeds 2,500 mph faster than the space shuttle and weathered temperatures approaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it entered Earth’s atmosphere.
“We had the models and we have the best people on the planet, but until you fly it, you don’t know,” Geyer said.
Engineers will evaluate all the data recorded on the ground and on the spacecraft’s onboard systems including readings from 1,200 sensors placed throughout the crew module to find out more details about all the elements of the spacecraft and the details of their performance.
“The first look looks really good from a data standpoint,” Gerstenmaier said, comparing watching the well-executed flight to an artist pondering a masterwork.
Orion will open the space between Earth and Mars for exploration by astronauts. This proving ground will be invaluable for testing capabilities future human Mars missions will need. The spacecraft was tested in space to allow engineers to collect critical data to evaluate its performance and improve its design. The flight tested Orion’s heat shield, avionics, parachutes, computers and key spacecraft separation events, exercising many of the systems critical to the safety of astronauts who will travel in Orion.
“Orion is the exploration spacecraft for NASA, and paired with the Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket it will allow us to explore the solar system,” said Mark Geyer, program manager of Orion, which is based at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
On future missions, Orion will launch on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket currently being developed at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. A 70 metric-ton (77 ton) SLS will send Orion to a distant retrograde orbit around the moon on Exploration Mission-1 in the first test of the fully integrated Orion and SLS system.
“We really pushed Orion as much as we could to give us real data that we can use to improve Orion’s design going forward,” said Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager. “In the coming weeks and months we’ll be taking a look at that invaluable information and applying lessons learned to the next Orion spacecraft already in production for the first mission atop the Space Launch System rocket.”
A team of NASA, U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin personnel aboard the USS Anchorage are in the process of recovering Orion and will return it to U.S. Naval Base San Diego in the coming days. Orion will then be delivered to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it will be processed. The crew module will be refurbished for use in Ascent Abort-2 in 2018, a test of Orion’s launch abort system.