NASA’s Orion Has a Successful First Test Flight

This screenshot shows the Orion spacecraft in the Pacific Ocean after it splashed down Dec. 5, 2014, about 270 miles west of Baja, Calif. (PHOTO CREDIT: NASA)
This screenshot shows the Orion spacecraft in the Pacific Ocean after it splashed down Dec. 5, 2014, about 270 miles west of Baja, Calif. (PHOTO CREDIT: NASA)

An unmanned capsule NASA is designing to carry astronauts to an asteroid and eventually Mars splashed down in the Pacific Ocean Friday to conclude a successful first test flight.

After two laps of Earth, the Orion spacecraft plunged through the atmosphere at 20,000 mph, enveloped in a fireball that scorched its heat shield with temperatures up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The capsule emerged intact from its 3,600-mile fall and deployed three orange-and-white-striped parachutes to brake its speed to 20 mph as it hit the water at 11:29 a.m. EST, 270 miles west of Baja California.

NASA called it a “bull’s eye” landing.

“There’s your new spacecraft, America,” Mission Control commentator Rob Navias said as the Orion capsule neared the water.

Navias called the journey “the most perfect flight you could ever imagine.”

The scene of a potential deep space crew capsule bobbing in the ocean, four-and-a-half hours after launching from Florida, recalled the last return of astronauts from Apollo moon missions 42 years ago.

Recovery crews immediately began efforts to tow the capsule to a waiting Navy ship, where heat shield inspections will begin and data from 1,200 sensors will be secured on the way back to a San Diego port this weekend.

The $375 million Exploration Flight Test-1 mission blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station just after sunrise at 7:05 a.m., on the mission’s second attempt.

“Liftoff at dawn, the dawn of Orion and a new era of American space exploration,” said NASA TV commentator Mike Curie.

The agency reported some positive results, saying onboard computers were unaffected by high radiation in space.

The capsule reached a peak altitude more than 14 times farther from Earth than the International Space Station. No spacecraft designed for astronauts had gone so far since Apollo 17 — NASA’s final moon shot — 42 years ago.

NASA needed to send Orion that high in order to set the crew module up for a 20,000-mph, 4,000-degree entry. That was considered the most critical part of the entire flight — testing the largest of its kind heat shield for survival before humans climb aboard.

In 11 minutes, Orion slowed from to 20 mph at splashdown, its final descent aided by eight parachutes deployed in sequence. A crew on board would have endured as much as 8.2 Gs, or 8.2 times the force of Earth gravity, double the Gs of a returning Russian Soyuz capsule, according to NASA.

Riding atop a 243-foot United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket firing three booster engines with a combined 2 million pounds of thrust — the most powerful rocket available today — Orion rumbled slowly from its pad into a low layer of clouds while onlookers at Kennedy Space Center cheered.

They included U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., one of the architects in Congress of NASA’s human exploration program, who echoed NASA in calling the event “the dawn of a new era in spaceflight.”

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James Dean, Florida Today

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