Science

Orion spacecraft splashes down after test flight

NASA's new Orion spacecraft made a "bullseye" splashdown in the Pacific on Friday following a dramatic test flight that took it to a zenith height of 5,800 kilometres and ushered in a new era of human exploration aiming for Mars

Orion capsule returns

7 years ago
1:06
NASA's Orion spacecraft arrives in San Diego, Calif., aboard the USS Anchorage after its ocean landing. The test flight went farther into space than any spacecraft built for humans in more than 40 years 1:06

NASA's new Orion spacecraft made a "bullseye" splashdown in the Pacific on Friday following a dramatic test flight that took it to a zenith height of 5,800 kilometres and ushered in a new era of human exploration aiming for Mars.

The unmanned test flight ended 4½ hours after it began and achieved at least one record: flying farther and faster than any capsule built for humans since the Apollo moon program.

"There's your new spacecraft, America," Mission Control commentator Rob Navias said as the Orion capsule neared the water about 430 kilometres off Mexico's Baja peninsula.​

NASA is counting on future Orions to carry astronauts beyond Earth's orbit, to asteroids and ultimately the grand prize: Mars.

The agency reported some positive results, saying onboard computers were unaffected by high radiation in space

The capsule reached peak altitude of 5,800 kilometres three hours after Friday morning's liftoff from Cape Canaveral. It's the farthest a spacecraft designed for humans has flown since Apollo 17 — NASA's final moon shot — flew 42 years ago.

In 11 minutes, Orion slowed to 32 km/h 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 gravity, double the Gs of a returning Russian Soyuz capsule, according to NASA.

Earth shrank from view through Orion's capsule window during its trip out to space, and stunning images were relayed back home. Its return was recorded by an unmanned drone flying over the recovery zone, providing more spectacular views. Helicopters then relayed images of the crew module bobbing in the water. Three of the five air bags deployed properly, enough to keep the capsule floating upright.

The U.S. Navy was there to recover the spacecraft about 1010 kilometres southwest of San Diego, where it will be brought to land. All the parachutes did their job, but only two of the eight were recovered.

'A new era of American space exploration'

NASA is now "one step closer" to putting humans aboard Orion, said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. He called it "Day one of the Mars era."

The atmosphere at Kennedy Space Center was reminiscent of the shuttle-flying days, but considerably more upbeat than that last mission in 2011.

Astronaut Rex Walheim was aboard that final shuttle flight and among the dozens of spacefliers on hand for Orion's historic send-off. He talked up Orion's future in sending crews to Mars and the importance of becoming a multiplanetary species.

"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," Walheim said.

His enthusiasm was shared by Chris Tarkenton, who travelled from Poquoson, Va., to watch from the nearby causeway.

"It's been a while since we've been able to launch something of this magnitude," Tarkenton said. "Awe inspiring."

From the International Space Station; six astronauts watched the events unfold via a live TV feed.

It's been a while since we've been able to launch something of this magnitude.- Chris Tarkenton, spectator

In Houston, NASA's Mission Control took over the entire operation once Orion was aloft. The flight program was loaded into Orion's computers well in advance, allowing the spacecraft to fly essentially on autopilot. Flight controllers — all shuttle veterans — could intervene in the event of an emergency breakdown.

The spacecraft was rigged with 1,200 sensors to gauge everything from heat to vibration to radiation. At 3.3 metres tall with a five-metre base, Orion is bigger than the old-time Apollo capsules and, obviously, more advanced.

NASA deliberately kept astronauts off this first Orion.

Managers want to test the riskiest parts of the spacecraft — the heat shield, parachutes, various jettisoning components — before committing to a crew. In addition, on-board computers were going to endure the high-radiation Van Allen belts; engineers wondered whether they might falter.

Crew expected to fly on Orion in 2021

Friday's Orion — serial number 001 — lacked seats, cockpit displays and life-support equipment for obvious reasons. Instead, bundles of toys and memorabilia were on board: bits of moon dust; the crew patch worn by Sally Ride, America's first spacewoman; a Capt. James Kirk collector's doll owned by Star Trek actor William Shatner, and more.

The Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Orion spacecraft lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Friday. (Steve Nesius/Reuters)
Lockheed Martin Corp. already has begun work on a second Orion, and plans to eventually build a fleet of the capsules. The earliest that astronauts might fly on an Orion is 2021. An asteroid redirected to lunar orbit is intended for the first stop in the 2020s, followed by Mars in the 2030s.

The company handled the $370 million US test flight for NASA from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, opting for the Delta IV rocket this time given its heft. It's the most powerful unmanned rocket in the U.S. right now. The entire rocket and capsule, topped by a launch abort tower, stretched nearly 74 metres and weighed 1.6 million pounds — an "incredible monster," according to Bolden.

To push Orion farther out on future flights, NASA is developing a megarocket known as Space Launch System or SLS. The first Orion-SLS combo will fly around 2018, again without a crew to shake out the rocket.

NASA's last trip beyond low-Earth orbit in a vessel built for people was the three-man Apollo 17 in December 1972. Orion will be capable of carrying four astronauts on long hauls and as many as six on three-week hikes.

Bolden, a former astronaut and now NASA's No. 1, called Mars "the ultimate destination of this generation," but said his three young granddaughters think otherwise, telling him, "Don't get hung up on Mars because there are other places to go once we get there."

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