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Watch next step in space exploration Thursday morning in Raleigh

Posted December 2, 2014

The Orion EFT-1 mission will travel 60,000 miles reaching an altitude 10 times that of the Space Shuttle before splashing down in the Pacific (Image: NASA)

NASA will step into the next chapter in space exploration Thursday with the launch of the first Orion Exploration Test Flight (EFT-1). This is the first time a vehicle designed for human spaceflight has left low-Earth orbit in more than 40 years.

EFT-1 will test critical spacecraft separation events during ascent and deorbit, performance of the thermal protection system during a lunar-like return and demonstrate descent, landing and recovery of the spacecraft including the heat shield and series of eight parachutes responsible for reducing it from nearly 20,000 mph to less than 20 mph over just a few minutes.

The Orion capsule looks a bit like the Apollo Command Module, and they are both designed for a soft landing in water (the Russian Soyuz capsules land in the deserts of Kazakhstan – hard!).

Apollo and Orion capsules

Orion’s crew compartment is 29 percent wider but only about half the mass thanks to new aluminum alloys and milling techniques that retain the strength of the material while shedding most of the mass. Apollo was designed for a crew of three. Orion can hold twice that number many for the short trip to the International Space Station, but it will be limited to a crew of four for longer flights beyond the moon.

Advances made during the space shuttle era have been incorporated into Orion. The heat shield, the largest ever created for a capsule, uses tiles made of the same lightweight material that protected the shuttle on re-entry. Crew seats also come from the shuttle. Refurbished Space Shuttle Main Engines, still the most efficient large rocket engine ever designed, will be used on the service module.

Space Shuttle Main Engines

Comparisons of this flight to unmanned Apollo test flights of the early to mid 60s are appropriate. Orion EFT-1 has elements of the five Apollo AS-100 series flights atop Saturn I in 1964 and 1965 as well as the three Apollo AS-200 missions atop the Saturn IB in 1966. Those flights also verified the structural integrity of the capsule and tested the jettison of the escape tower and the heat shield on re-entry.

The mission ends when Orion splashes down off the coast of Baja, California. While the launch and recovery points are far from the Triangle, this launch day would not have come if not for testing closer to home.

Splashdown has been thoroughly tested at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. I’ve been present for two of those tests and have the wet shoes to prove it. A boilerplate capsule of the right mass and center of gravity is hoisted and swung into he center’s Hydro Impact Basin. The Structural Passive Landing Attenuation for Survivability of Human-crew (SLASH) trials were performed at a variety of angles and speeds to test the capsule’s behavior.

Splashdown of Orion

The first test I saw was at a steeper angle than the parachutes are designed to allow resulting in a dramatic flip of the capsule in the 1-million-gallon pool.

The early weather forecast from the Air Force's 45th Weather Squadron predicts 60 percent go conditions with coastal showers and winds as the only concerns.  Coverage of the launch begins on NASA TV at 4:30 a.m. Thursday ahead of the launch planned for 7:05 a.m. EST and continues throughout splashdown at 11:28 a.m. EST with coverage of recovery.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is opening its doors at 6:45 a.m. Thursday for live viewing of the launch and recovery of Orion inside the massive dome of the Daily Planet. Doughnuts and coffee will be served.

Dr. Rachel L. Smith, director of the Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Lab will speak at 12:30 p.m. on how Orion enables humans to explore deep space. I'll have a talk at 1:30 p.m. with details of the mission we just saw and next steps in the Orion and space launch programs.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.


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  • airsikblue Dec 11, 2014

    Well yeah. Because murikkka has done so good with the land it stole, murdered, and raped for, why not head out into space

  • CaptainSpleen Dec 3, 2014

    View quoted thread

    SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are only capable of reaching low-Earth orbit with something as massive as the Orion capsule. They can only reach higher orbits with lighter payloads. I hope they'll build bigger launch vehicles at some point, but for now, almost all of the demand is for low-Earth orbit. Exploration beyond that is still pretty much only within the means of governments.

  • Ty Shrake Dec 3, 2014
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    All true, but I think competing with NASA is a good thing, so I encourage NASA to keep working on these programs.

    I just hope the White House doesn't pull the plug on this like they did our manned space program.

  • Shelly Hudson-Baker Dec 3, 2014
    user avatar

    Fantastic & informative article, will be setting my DVR! A few years back (2007 or so) the Museum of Natural Sciences had a wonderful exhibit with some prototypes regarding this mission...my how time has flown!

  • Chris VanderHaven Dec 3, 2014
    user avatar

    Part of me hopes for a successful test. The other part, the SpaceX-supporting part, hopes for issues. SpaceX is able to do all of this much cheaper than even NASA can, and has shown successful tests of everything so far, including their ground-landing capabilities, making water landings only needed in emergency situations. I'm just bummed I won't be available to watch the launch.

  • goldeagle Dec 3, 2014

    Will be nice to see a milestone reached.

  • abwhite88 Dec 3, 2014