First successful test flight for NASA’s Orion spacecraft

Cape Canaveral, Dec 5 2014, 7:05 am: with the successful launch of Orion Spacecraft, NASA completes the first crucial step of a new era of space exploration which will one day fly astronauts to Mars.

The Delta IV Rocket carrying the Orion Spacecraft lifted off from Cape Canaveral (Florida) at 7:05 am, Dec 5th 2014 (credit Reuters, Mike Brown).

The Delta IV Rocket carrying the Orion Spacecraft lifted off from Cape Canaveral (FL) at 7:05 am, Dec 5th 2014 (credit: Reuters, Mike Brown).

The Orion capsule lifted off aboard the Delta IV Heavy rocket just after dawn from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 (Florida), in what was intended to be an unmanned test mission to test the reliability of the spacecraft. Three hours after liftoff, Orion reached its peak altitude of 5,800 km from Earth, just before initiating the most challenging part of the flight – a 32,000-km/h descend back. The 19,000-pound capsule endured a blazing plunge through the atmosphere heating up to 2,200 degrees Celsius and experienced gravitational forces eight times stronger than Earth’s upon re-entry. Slowed down by a total of 11 parachutes to a gentle 32-km/h ride in the final phase of its descent, the capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean 1,014 km southwest of San Diego at 11.29 am – about four and a half hours after launch.

The flawless flight, which costed NASA about $375 million, aimed at testing the performance of the heat shield, parachutes and other equipment prior to carry astronauts on board in future flights. Equipped with over 1200 on-board sensors, Orion also performed several measurements to gather crucial information for upcoming manned missions, including the radiation doses inside the cabin while flying through the Van Allen radiation belt. Overall the mission was a success: “We’ve… finally done something for the first time for our generation. It’s a good day,” said Mike Hawes, Orion program manager with NASA prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

NASA has already spent $9 billion and more than eight years in the development of Orion, which after the cancellation of the Constellation lunar exploration program has become the jewel of the new space initiative intended to fly humans to Mars. A second unmanned flight is expected in 2018, while in 2021 NASA is already planning to fly Orion with two Astronauts around the Moon. It will be the first time after the end of the Apollo program in 1972 that humans will fly more than only a few hundred miles above Earth.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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