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Orion test flight a critical step on NASA’s journey to Mars

helmet-mars science laboratory rover Orion EFT-1 NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: NASA

America embarks on what could be a long-lasting trip to Mars this Thursday, Dec. 4. Orion’s maiden flight, Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), is slated to test the spacecraft’s crucial systems in a critical first step on the journey to destinations beyond Earth never before visited by humans. “Everyone is very excited about this mission,” Stephanie Schierholz, NASA spokesperson told

“Orion’s flight test is a critical step on NASA’s journey to Mars.” In the future, Orion will launch on NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). The rocket will be capable of sending humans to deep space destinations such as an asteroid in the 2020s and eventually the Red Planet.

United Launch Alliance ULA Delta IV Heavy NASA Exploration Flight Test 1 EFT-1 Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 37 SLC-37 photo credit John Hilliard posted on SpaceFlight Insider

ULA’s massive Delta IV Heavy stands ready to send NASA’s Orion spacecraft to orbit in the Dec. 1 image. Photo Credit: John Hilliard

During Thursday’s planned 4.5-hour flight, Orion will orbit Earth twice, covering more than 60,000 miles (96,600 kilometers) and reaching an altitude of 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometers) on the second orbit. (The International Space by Station by comparison orbits Earth at an altitude of approximately 260 miles, or 420 kilometers.)

“Orion will reenter the atmosphere at speeds of 20,000 mph and experience temperatures of about 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles southwest of San Diego,” Schierholz said.

Those temperatures – about 80 percent as hot as Orion would experience returning from lunar orbit – will provide the most challenging test currently possible.

The flight will provide critical data needed to improve Orion’s design and reduce risks to future crews that will fly on the capsule.

“The flight test basically is a compilation of the riskiest events we’ll see when we fly astronauts in Orion. The test will stress systems critical to safety, including the heat shield, parachutes, avionics and attitude control, to help us learn as much as possible before Orion carries astronauts on missions to explore an asteroid and on the journey to Mars,” Schierholz pointed out. “The best testing we can do of Orion is to fly it in space.”

Orion will launch atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 in Florida. The lift off is planned to take place at 7:05 a.m. EST with the launch window for the mission lasts for 2 hours and 39-minutes.

Five minutes after the launch, the first stage of the Delta rocket will separate from the rest of the vehicle, while the second stage will continue on with Orion. Two hours into the flight the second stage will complete its engine burn, sending the spacecraft on its way to its peak altitude of 3,600 miles that will be reached approximately 3 hours and 5 minutes after liftoff.

It’s worth noting that the Orion spacecraft will travel farther out than any vehicle built for humans has been in more than 40 years.

Exploration_Flight_Test-1_insignia NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: NASA

Minutes later, Orion will separate from its service module and the Delta IV Heavy. 4 hours, 15 minutes into the mission, during the re-entry, the spacecraft will experience the hottest period of its return through Earth’s atmosphere, with its heat shield experiencing temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

After the splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, Orion will be recovered by a combined NASA and U.S. Navy team that will attach Orion to cables that will pull it into the flooded well deck of the USS Anchorage.

“After we recover the capsule, we’ll refurbish it for use in the ascent abort 2 test, the next test for the launch abort system,” Schierholz revealed. She also said that the Orion Program will be working toward Orion’s Key Decision Point C, which is a programmatic milestone that provides approval to move from formulation to development for the Critical Design Review.

“After both those are completed, we’ll move toward the first integrated test flight aboard the Space Launch System, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1),” Schierholz added.

During the EM-1 mission, an uncrewed Orion will travel 40,000 miles beyond the Moon to a stable point where an asteroid will be relocated in the future.

“It will reduce risks for the integrated SLS/Orion configuration by providing information on structural and environmental loads; vehicle stability; guidance, navigation and control and separation dynamics between the launch vehicle and the integrated stack,” Schierholz added.


This article originally appeared on Astro Watch and can be viewed here: Orion

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Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

Reader Comments

Unfortunately Orion and SLS cost so much that they prevent the enabling technologies required for deep space exploration from being developed. The only mission Orion can do that Dragon cannot is to circle the moon. Any longer mission and Orion requires a habitat and propulsion module, which is all that is required for Dragon to perform deep space missions. Compare the costs and Dragon is far cheaper which would allow the development of all the enabling technologies such as deep space habitat with radiation shielding, propulsion module, lander module, fuel depot etc.
Orion and SLS are so expensive that NASA cannot afford to use them quickly enough to make a worthwhile exploration program. With re-usable F9 and Dragon NASA could afford many more missions and funds to develop the required systems to support deep space exploration.

Why criticize he Senate Launch System (SLS)? Because it is such an easy target and such a waste of money.

The interesting comparison of Orion to Dragon is that Dragon has more habitable space while weighing about half as much. And we all know how expensive it is to send mass into orbit, even at SpaceX prices.

Given a very limited budget, why even aim at Mars? Wouldn’t simply putting a permanent human presence on the moon be a more worthwhile goal at this point? But then this is probably just an excuse to hand more cash to Lockheed Martin, and every couple of years you reset the Mars countdown clock to 20 years.

Why is it these space x groupies are constantly criticizing SLS ?

Why is it that these SLS groupies are always criticising SpaceX?

Space x pumps out a lot of hype that there gonna do this and that. But there’s no profit in certain types of exploration and this is where NASA will pave the way. I’m not saying NASA is this or that and so great. They have their problems as well, but as the educated know, the only way to pave this path is through NASA/government funded missions as SLS will eventually accomplish. May not be as quick as we would like, because it is expensive, but well worth the investment.
And contrary to what the xer’s believe, there is tremendous support behind SLS. Every Hotel/Motel in the central Florida area is sold out for this launch.

Gregory L. Mitchell

Wish that I could be there to watch a big bit of history!!

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