NASA’s new Orion spacecraft splashes down in the Pacific on Friday, four and a half hours after it took off. The unmanned test flight achieved the new record of flying further and faster than any capsule built for humans since the Apollo moon program.
The spacecraft Orion completed a dramatic journey 3,604 miles beyond Earth. NASA is counting on future Orions to carry astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit in the decades ahead, to asteroids and ultimately Mars. Lead flight director, Mike Sarafin said “We challenged our best and brightest to continue to lead in space,” and “While this was an unmanned mission, we were all on board Orion.” The agency reported that not only did the capsule arrive intact, all the parachutes deployed and onboard computers withstood the intense radiation of the Van Allen belts surrounding Earth.
The capsule reached a peak altitude more than 14 times farther from our planet than the International Space Station. No spacecraft designed for astronauts had gone so far since Apollo 17, 42 years ago. Orion was sent unmanned in order to see whether the crew could withstand the 4,000 degree entry. That was considered the most critical part of the entire flight, testing the largest of its kind of heat shield for survival before humans climb aboard. In 11 minutes, Orion slowed from 20,000 mph 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’s gravity, double the Gs of a returning Russian Soyuz capsule, according to NASA.
At 11 feet tall with a 16.5 foot base, Orion is bigger that the old-time Apollo capsules and more advanced. It could carry four astronauts, one more than Apollo, on long treks, six on relatively short voyages of three weeks.
Throughout Orion’s journey, spectacular images and views were relayed back home. The U.S. Navy came in ships to recover the spacecraft and transport it to San Diego, 630 miles away. The spacecraft flew on autopilot, although veterans of shuttle flights could have intervened if necessary. Orion ended up just 1 ½ miles from the predicted splashdown spot. Once ashore, Orion will be transported by truck back to Cape Canaveral.
Lockheed Martin, NASA’s prime contractor for Orion, began manufacturing the Orion crew module in 2011 and delivered it in July 2012 to the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Facility at Kennedy where final assembly, integration and testing were completed. More than 1,000 companies across the country manufactured or contributed elements to Orion. NASA officials expect it will be at least seven years from now before Orion carries people. Astronaut Rex Walheim says “You have that excitement back here at the Kennedy Space Center and it’s tinged with even more excitement with what’s coming down the road.” This definitely seems like one great step for mankind.