After a frustrating set of circumstances leading to a scrubbed attempt yesterday, we witnessed, this morning, the successful launch of the first flight of NASA’s newest spacecraft: the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. The mission, designated Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), is the un-crewed first test of the newly commissioned spacecraft before planned crewed flights to the moon and to Mars. Although wind was a major problem yesterday, it seems that today, while it was still windy, the windspeed was below safety thresholds. At the scheduled time of 7:05 a.m. EST, the craft lifted off into space. We wait with bated breath as the rocket carrying the Orion craft orbits the Earth, and is scheduled to return at 11:29 a.m. EST with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
When NASA retired the venerated space shuttles three years ago, it felt as though the United States had stumbled in the international space race. After all, the space shuttles were the first reusable spacecraft, and with no replacement immediately available, the future of American crewed space exploration seemed a bit uncertain. Since the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis, on 21 July 2011, there have been no crewed launches into space from American soil (American trips to the ISS relied on Russian launch facilities). However, shortly before the retirement of the shuttles, NASA announced the Orion project with its goal to construct a reusable spacecraft for the most ambitious space mission yet: deep-space crewed voyages.
The Orion craft was developed from technologies created during the Constellation space program which ran from 2005 to 2009. The Constellation project was ultimately cancelled, but the technology it produced became the basis for the Orion mission now. Orion’s ultimate mission is to first return to the moon on a crewed mission, then if successful, send a crewed mission to Mars.
Orion’s liftoff weight on Earth of the entire spacecraft was 16,850 pounds. The spacecraft consists of three modules:
- The Launch Abort System: This is the massive spindle-like structure above the craft. It has rockets that can yank the attached Crew Module to safety in the event of a launch failure.
- The Crew Module: This module is 16.5 feet wide and is made to fit a crew of four, this is where the astronauts will command their ship and stay during the course of crewed missions.
- The Service Module: This module is designed to carry the space propulsion systems of Orion, and provide fuel, air, and environmental controls for the Crew Module. However, since these functions are not yet needed for this un-crewed test flight, the Service Module used in Exploration Test Flight 1 will not be the full-fledged one that will be used in future missions.
For the return trip, Orion’s Crew Module needs to re-enter the atmosphere using a heat shield to prevent it from burning up. Orion’s head shield is fiberglass-phenolic honeycomb assembly on a titanium frame with carbon fiber skin. The 330,000 honeycomb cells are individually injected with an insulation material called Avcoat. The material is injected by hand with a special dispensing gun. However, engineers reviewing the design noticed the Avcoat material was slightly more uneven than expected. As such, they propose a more monolithic design for the next head shield. For the current mission, the existing honeycomb heat shield is sufficient and was used as planned. Once in the atmosphere, it carries an 11-parachute system that will allow it to break its descent and land in the water in the Pacific Ocean. The parachute system had been extensively tested at the Yuma Army Proving Grounds in southwestern Arizona, and according to NASA it has been proven to be extremely reliable.
The purpose of this mission is to test all the major systems of the Orion spacecraft for safety and reliability before a crewed mission is attempted. Orion will orbit the Earth twice and reach apogee at 3,600 miles from Earth during its second orbit, before the Crew Module separates from the Service Module and second stage engines.
The Orion craft is currently its preliminary orbit, the first of two elliptical orbits before it heads back to Earth. After the countdown at the launch pad, the giant Delta IV rockets ignited at 7:05 a.m. EST and it carried the Orion craft upward into space. It sailed upward out into the upper atmosphere, where at 4 minutes, 10 seconds into the launch, the port and starboard rocket boosters separated. At 5 minutes, 40 seconds into the launch, the main engine cut off and 7 seconds later, the central common booster core separated. At 6 minutes, 46 seconds in, the fairing panels (that provide structural support during takeoff) on the service module were jettisoned to reduce weight. At 19 minutes into the flight we had a flawless orbital insertion and Orion is on course.
The Service Module, attached to the second stage engines, will burn up during reentry to Earth, and only the Crew Module with its heat shields will re-enter the atmosphere and splash down into the Pacific Ocean for recovery. A NASA Predator drone named Ikhana will launch from Edwards Air Force Base in California at 2 a.m. PST and fly to the target landing area off the coast of Baja California. When Orion returns. we will hopefully get some spectacular descent and splashdown footage from the drone.
We’ll update this article as news on the re-entry develops, so keep checking back for all the latest!
Update #1: December 5, 2014, 6:35 a.m., PST
Orion finished its first orbit or Earth about 25 minutes ago, and a second stage burn has pushed the craft to a higher altitude, and into an even more elliptical orbit. As Orion nears the Van Allen radiation belts, it shut off the cameras. In this part of the Earth’s surrounding space, there is intense radiation that is captured in place by the Earth’s magnetic field.
There is an onboard device called BIRD (Battery-operated Independent Radiation Detector) which measures radiation levels as it passes through the Van Allen belts. This data will help scientists analyze the radiation hazards that astronauts will be exposed to when passing through this region. They are also monitoring the effects of radiation on the computers and avionics of the craft. Orion has completed its first pass through the Van Allen belt with no immediately observed effects from radiation; the data from BIRD will provide a more complete picture later.
Meanwhile back on Earth, the USS Anchorage, a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship, awaits in the Pacific Ocean waiting for the eventual splashdown and recovery, and Ikhana continues its journey toward the recovery zone.
Update #2: December 5, 2014, 8:35 a.m., PST
At 8:29 a.m. PST, Orion’s crew module has successfully landed in the Pacific Ocean where the USS Anchorage is waiting for its retrieval. After entering the atmosphere, the heat shield protected it from the immense heat from the friction with the Earth’s atmosphere. The module splashed down about 270 miles west of Baja California, about 630 miles southwest of San Diego.
Orion started re-entry at a speed of 420,000 miles per hour. Temperatures reached around 4000 F during re-entry! After it re-entered the atmosphere, it was still travelling at around 300 miles an hour, which had to be slowed to about 20 miles an hour for a safe landing. The complex 11-parachute system slowed its descent, and thus has now splashed down safely off the coast of Baja.
Assisting the USS Anchorage is the USS Salvor, a Safeguard-class rescue and salvage ship. The crew module will be pulled into the well deck of the Anchorage, which can be filled with water so the floating capsule can be pulled in to the ship while it is afloat. Then it will be placed on rubber footings to protect the heat shield on the way back to where it will be taken to San Diego.
The Ikhana drone’s video coverage of the re-entry and splashdown is simply breathtaking! We’ll bring it to you as soon as it’s available.
This will be the last update to this article.
Nur is a tinkerer of programmable things, an apprentice in an ancient order of technomages. He enjoys fantasy, sci-fi, comic books, and Lego in his spare time. His favourite authors are Asimov and Tolkien. He also loves Celtic and American folk music. You can follow him on twitter: @nurhussein