Orion took baby steps into space this December with its first successful test flight. Orion is the only manned space exploration mission undertaken by NASA since the shuttles were decommissioned. With cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) handed off to commercial companies, NASA is focusing its efforts on the Orion program and all the technological advancements that will be necessary to propel humans outside Earth’s atmosphere to the Moon, asteroids and some day Mars.
On December 5th, after a 24 hour delay, the Orion spacecraft took off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 7:05 am EST mounted on Delta IV Heavy rockets. The test flight was intended to subject the spacecraft to as many of the environmental and situational variables that it will go through when fully operational and carrying humans.
Orion was put through its paces. After detaching from the Delta rocket, the Orion spacecraft traveled twice through the Van Allen belt, an area of high radiation, to test how the instruments would react. Deep space missions will take the spacecraft with its human crew through these radiation belts in the future, so data on how the instruments react will help scientists adjust and innovate the on-board equipment to handle the stressful conditions. The spacecraft eventually reached an altitude of 3,604 miles above the Earth before heading back down.
As Orion entered the atmosphere, it reached a blazing 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit and speeds of 20,000 mile per hour (mph). The reentry was meant to test the heat shield, while not a new technology it is the largest of its kind ever built and serves to protect the crew module from the intense heat and force of reentry. Cameras on board the capsule collected video of the reentry and landing.
The atmosphere slowed the spacecraft from 20,000 mph to 300 mph, which is when the forward bay cover parachutes deployed, throwing off the bay door and allowing the two drogue and three main parachutes to deploy. The two 23-feet wide drogue parachutes slow the spacecraft down enough for the three main parachutes to deploy, each one measuring 116-feet wide, slowing the spacecraft down to 20 mph before landing in the ocean off of Baja California.
Technically, Orion only needs two main parachutes and one drogue parachute to deploy in order to successfully land, an extra of each parachute is added in the instance that one of the parachutes fails to deploy. The parachute system was tested on numerous occasions, each in different scenarios: from specific parachutes not deploying, to the parachutes not deploying in the correct sequence or timing. While there are dangers that threaten the crew at every stage of space flight, making the landing as fool-proof as possible will increase the safety of the mission, even in the instance of an aborted ascent where the spacecraft has to land safely without ever escaping Earth’s atmosphere.
After the successful test flight, the capsule and two of the main parachutes were recovered and returned to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to be processed. The crew capsule will be refurbished and used in the next test of Orion’s launch abort system in 2018.