Published: 2014-12-02 23:12:00
Updated: 2014-12-02 23:15:56
Posted December 2, 2014
By Tony Rice
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!).
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.
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.
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.