NASA’s Orion spacecraft returns home after historic EFT-1 mission
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla — The Orion spacecraft that carried out the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1 ) has returned to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Orion actually arrived from its cross-country voyage on Dec. 18 after being trucked across the continental United States. On Dec. 5, Orion lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37 ) atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket on a two orbit – 4.5 hour test flight. By all accounts the mission was a complete success – one capped off by the spacecraft’s seared exterior today.
“Orion’s flight test was a critical step on our journey to send astronauts to explore deep space destinations,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We stressed Orion to help us evaluate its performance and validate our computer models and ground-based evaluations, and the information we gathered will help us improve Orion’s design going forward.”
EFT-1 saw the Orion spacecraft venture out some 3,600 miles (5,794 kilometers) above the Earth during it second, furthest orbit. Upon venturing out further than any crew-rated spacecraft has done since the Apollo 17 mission to the Moon, Orion then came back home – at a blistering 20, 000 miles (32,187 km) per hour. This caused the capsule-shaped craft’s heat shield to see temperatures as high as 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,200 degrees Celsius).
Upon reentering into the Earth’s atmosphere, the spacecraft’s forward bay cover was jettisoned and some 11 parachutes slowed Orion down for splash down in the Pacific Ocean – just of the California Coast. The U.S. Navy recovered the vessel, bringing it into the USS Anchorage – where it was then ferried back to shore.
Louie Garcia, NASA’s Ground Operations Manager responsible for returning the capsule back to Kennedy Space Center, said: “It was an honor and a privilege to bring America’s Orion spacecraft back home to Kennedy Space Center.”
NASA had intended to carry out the mission on Dec. 4, but high winds, a sticky hydrogen valve, and a wayward cargo vessel out in the Atlantic Ocean – caused three holds, and eventually a scrub for the day. The weather for the day, seemed ideal, but winds at SLC-37 threatened to push the Delta IV launch vehicle back onto the booster’s service structure.
“The flight itself was such a great success, but that’s only the beginning of the story,” said Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer. “Now we get to dig in and really find out if our design performed like we thought it would. This is why we flew the flight. We demonstrated on Dec. 5 that Orion is a very capable vehicle. Now we’re going to keep testing and improving as we begin building the next Orion.”
For now, Orion is safely tucked away in the Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) while the Orion team enjoys some much needed rest during the upcoming holiday break. After the first of the year, the team will work to gather data needed to complete the 90 day Orion EFT-1 final report. The report is owed to NASA on March 5, 2015. The team delivered a preliminary 14 day report based on initial data collected from the vehicle to NASA on Dec. 19.
Schenider discussed that Orion’s maiden flight passed 85 of 87 total objectives. The two objectives that will require further analysis were associated with the Crew Module’s Uprighting System (CMUS).
He stated, “I’m sure you’re familiar with the big orange balloons that pop out on the front of the vehicle, to keep the vehicle from tipping over — we had four of the five deploy, with two losing pressure pressure quickly and the other two staying pressurized.”
These unmet objectives were considered to be minor issues. In Jan. the team will work to determine exactly what caused the balloons two to deflate, and the one not to deploy.
With its first flight behind it, this Orion will be studied, and refurbished in preparation for its next flight four years from now. The Orion spacecraft will be moved from the LASF to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) to ensure all hazardous materials have been removed before it is processed at the Operations and Checkout Building.
The next steps that will be conducted to get Orion prepared to launch crews are four years away. NASA is planning on conducting the first flight of Orion’s intended launch vehicle, the Space Launch System or “SLS” along with another Orion spacecraft in 2018. In that same year, the Space Agency has scheduled the Ascent Abort 2 (AA2) test to take place at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 46. This test flight will be carried out to validate Orion’s Launch Abort System and will lift off atop the upper stage of a Peacekeeper missile. The Orion capsule that will fly the AA2 mission is the same capsule that flew the EFT-1 test.
Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.