Liftoff! Orion Successfully Launches For Pivotal Test Flight

By Joelle Renstrom | 6 years ago

orion-test-flightI got goosebumps watching Orion liftoff today at dawn. This is it, people, this is the future of American spaceflight. It’s surreal watching the spacecraft that may someday take people to Mars—the mid-2030s, says NASA—liftoff and leave Earth behind.

After yesterday’s scrubbed launch, today’s test flight couldn’t have gone any better—at least, so far. As I write this Orion has just achieved its peak altitude of 3,604 miles, which is farther than any spacecraft intended for a human crew has gone since our last trip to the moon in 1972, and roughly 15 times farther away than the International Space Station. In a little over an hour, the craft—minus the first and second stages, which it shed along the way—will land in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja, California. The U.S. Navy has already been deployed to recover the capsule.

Exploration Flight Test-1—uncrewed, of course—is designed to test a series of critical systems on the spacecraft, such as the heat shield, the separation of the rocket stages, the software, attitude control, parachute, and landing. Scientists and engineers are gathering data from the test flight and will use it to make further design decisions, as well as to continue developing and improving the spacecraft for safe and effective future use.

During the test flight, the Orion capsule launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, the biggest and most powerful ever built, which is necessary to carry the fuel, heat shield, and other equipment required to carry humans to Mars. Orion circled Earth twice, achieving speeds of nearly 20,000 miles per hour. Upon reentry, it will experience temperatures of nearly 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is close to the temperatures human astronauts would experience during reentry from the moon.

Orion’s upper stage performed the first burn, which boosted Orion to its preliminary orbit, and the next stage performed the second burn, which directed it away from Earth orbit. The crew module just separated from the service module. Now, Orion flies by itself for the first time ever, but certainly not the last. Now we’re an hour away from splashdown (roughly 11:30 am EST), which will be aided by 11 parachutes. Thus far, Orion is on target for a “bullseye” landing, a term that sums up this entire test flight.

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