If at one time or another any have considered NASA’s human space exploration program to have been rather uneventful, unambitious, or even stagnant since the days of the Apollo Moon missions, they will now need to sit up and pay attention so as not to miss another space exploration juggernaut about to leave the hangar…
Although the next link in the chain may not be seen for a little while, the importance of the Orion capsule’s recent test flight as the first link in a new space exploration activity chain should not be underestimated. So what precisely was the significance of Orion’s maiden voyage around the Earth? Well in the words of NASA boss, Charles Bolden Jr., it represented: “Day One of the Mars era” or, as another commentator put it: “The dawn of Orion and a new era of American space exploration” since the Orion spacecraft is being built specifically for the purpose of taking astronauts farther into the Solar System than ever before.
As a much discussed event the Orion capsule’s automated double orbit of our planet and splashdown was thought by others to be the “biggest moment for NASA since the Shuttle program ended in 2011.” Interestingly someone observed that the flight controllers in mission control on Friday 5th December were all veterans of the Shuttle era. Mike Sarafin, Orion Flight Director of the Johnson Space Centre in Houston commented that there was: “…a little bit of a sense of getting the band back together.”
With a wealth of real-time footage and crisp continuous commentary throughout, it was clear that NASA wanted their ‘grand day out in space once again’ to be enjoyed by all. Although ESA will be providing the Service Module for the Orion capsule (made by Airbus Defence and Space), and NASA, the Command Module (under contract to Lockheed Martin), early December’s ‘Exploration Flight Test 1’ was undoubtedly a day when the American space program took centre stage, blasting the Orion MPCV (Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle) into space on the world’s most powerful rocket, the Delta IV Heavy.
If a more attention-grabbing ignition could have been required for the much-anticipated Complex 37 launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida, it was delivered with somewhat unexpected exuberance when the Delta IV’s trio of Common Booster Cores sent enormous flames hurtling up some 40 metres up around the rocket. Whether viewed from the NASA Causeway or elsewhere via TV, the spectacle of the liquid-fuelled white and orange behemoth propelling what will be the most advanced spacecraft ever, skyward on three brilliant columns of light is one none of us are likely to forget.
With the United Launch Alliance’s highest capacity rocket providing 9420kN of thrust (full thrust) for the first 44 seconds, 80 m flames escorted the metallic tower through the troposphere. Synchronised to perfection, the centre core then throttled down to 55% until booster separation. With the two side boosters expending all of their hydrogen-oxygen cargo 4minutes after launch, they neatly detached while the RS-68A engine of the Delta IV’s 5metre diameter first stage powered back up to full thrust.
After performing for another 86 seconds, separation of the 41metre long first stage was announced and the RL 10-B-2 engine of the second stage ignited to take Orion to LEO (Low Earth Orbit). Just 17 minutes after lift-off, Orion and the second stage of the Delta IV Heavy commenced an initial Earth orbit. Eventually though, the rocket’s second stage was also jettisoned off, allowing Orion to execute the final phases of its flight. Orion’s Exploration Flight Test 1 ultimately took the Crew Module to 15 times the height of the International Space Station, the first time a vehicle designed for humans had been sent such a distance into space since 1972.
As space is a very hazardous place, long journeys far into it and returning are all the more so. The inaugural flight of an empty Orion capsule was invaluable therefore for testing numerous things, ensuring that the day a crew are onboard there will be the best guarantee of reliability and everything running well. The voyage gave NASA the opportunity to observe Orion’s systems in action, to see that its computers and navigation system continued to function effectively, despite having to pass through the intense radiation of Earth’s Van Allen belts twice. This they did. At 5m across, also successfully tested was Orion’s heatshield, larger than any that have flown before.
With its thrusters maintaining control of a neat ‘barrel-roll’ (to spread the effects of atmospheric friction), Orion re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at 120 000mph (84% the return velocity from the Moon), proving that it could withstand the searing 2200degree Celsius plasma flames yet maintain the crew’s quarters at a very habitable 22.2degrees simultaneously. If at Orion’s furthest away point during EFT-1, 3604 miles above the Earth, an unidentified flying object had docked with the MPCV and some aliens had peered inside the capsule, they may have been surprised to find a mysteriously empty vehicle void of occupants. Mystification however may have given way to interest when they discovered unusual things from the home planet onboard: some of the belongings of the first American woman in space (Sally Ride); an oxygen hose from an Apollo 11 spacesuit; a Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil; Moon dust; a Captain Kirk toy figure donated by actor William Shatner.
The silent and almost angelic descent of the Orion capsule suspended like some tiny newborn from its three white parachutes against a patchwork of cumulus white and halcyon blue was a sight to delight all. 4hrs 24mins after it had all kicked off with the words “Go Delta, go Orion” the Orion spacecraft’s first major adventure was over with the capsule splashing into the ocean 630 miles SW of San Diego. With it its three sets of parachutes tested successfully, the final test for the Orion Crew Module commenced, that of its crew module uprighting system. Although two of the airbags did not deploy correctly the other three provided sufficient buoyancy to ensure the package was kept ‘this way up’ for the comfort and convenience of the future crew it is hoped the module shall contain. A NASA commentator proudly articulated the feeling of the moment: “From an away point over the Pacific Ocean, there is your new spacecraft America.”
The successful piece of hardware was then swallowed by a US navy ship and we are told will have been returned to the Kennedy Space Centre just in time for Christmas. Although the Orion capsule’s successful maiden voyage in space may not yet have been another “…small step for a man and one giant leap for mankind”, one day the project should see astronauts set foot on red soil. If we follow the maxim ‘start out as you mean to go on’, the quality of that start is surely important. Perhaps it’s noteworthy then that on the day of Orion’s EFT-1, its Program Manager Mark Geyer stated that: “It’s hard to have a better day than today”.
(Article by Nick Parke, Education Support Officer)