The human adventure is just beginning

Orion EFT-1 lifts-off exactly on time, 12:05 UTC, on Friday, December 5th, 2014
Orion EFT-1 (Exploration Flight Test 1) lifts-off exactly on time, 12:05 UT, on Friday, December 5th, 2014

Friday, December 5th marked what will hopefully be the first genuine step humans take in exploring the high frontier of space without total reliance upon robot vehicles. It came in the form of the launch, at 12:05 UT, of the first space vehicle in over forty years to be specifically designed to carry a crew beyond the limits of low Earth orbit and out into the depths of the solar system: the Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle.

Originally, the lift-off had been planned for Thursday, December 4th. However, a series of incidents involving a small boat compromising the range safety exclusion zone, difficult winds over the launch pad, and then technical issues with two fuel valve systems aboard the Delta IV Heavy rocket, prompted the delay of the mission by 24 hours. But when the mission did get under way, it did so flawlessly, and continued in that manner right through until splashdown 4.5 hours later.

The two fairings which protect the Service Module as it sets between the Orion capsule and the upper stage of its launch booster (and which also take a fair amount of the dynamic pressures the vehicle experiences during launch) are jettisoned
The two fairings which protect the Service Module as it sets between the Orion capsule and the upper stage of its launch booster (and which also take a fair amount of the dynamic pressures the vehicle experiences during launch) are jettisoned

Orion launched precisely on time, lifting-off in the post-dawn light of Florida’s Space Coast, and rising smoothly from Launch Complex 37 at Canaveral Air Station. The textbook launch was followed by a mission that followed the flight plan with amazing accuracy to the point where the craft, after a journey that carried it further than any vehicle intended to carry humans has flown in 42 years, and  which saw it punch its way back through the Earth’s atmosphere at 32,000 kph, splashed down just three kilometres or so from its planned target point.

The mission, called Exploration Flight Test 1, was uncrewed, and intended to test all of the critical systems for the vehicle with the exception of the Service Module, which won’t fly until the next Orion mission in 2017. Through the flight all of the system vital to the safety of a crew were put through their paces: the Launch Abort System, radiation protection, heat shield, and multiple parachute systems and the floatation system, together with all the vehicle’s complex flight avionics and software.

The limb of the Earth as Orion reaches some 4,000 km from its home, on its way to over 5,800 km, before making its return
The limb of the Earth as Orion reaches some 4,000 km from its home, on its way to over 5,800 km, before making its return

So well did the vehicle perform through the flight that it was, in some ways, mundane; milestones came and went without a hitch, with only the launch and re-entry / splashdown forming points of drama / excitement. But really, that’s the whole point; problems aren’t what you need on a space mission. Let Hollywood play with them, but leave them out of the real thing.

Following launch, the vehicle rapidly climbed to orbit, the Delta launch vehicle’s two side boosters dropping away after the first few minutes of the flight to leave the core booster to get the vehicle to its initial height. Separation of the upper stage, complete with the “dummy” Service Module and Orion capsule then occurred, follow by the jettisoning of the fairings covering what would normally be the Service Module, and the ejection of the Launch Abort System (which, in a real mission, would automatically pull the capsule, which it enshrouds during launch, away from the main rocket the millisecond a serious anomaly in the rocket’s flight status is detected).

Re-entry: a camera aboard Orion captures the limb of the Earth, with the flames of super-heated plasma just visible as the bow-shock wave of the craft's entry into the atmosphere generate temperatures of 2,200C (twice that of molten lava) directly in front of the capsule, and around 1,800C around it, all of which is prevented from burning-up the vehicle by the presence of the heat shield 2under" the capsule and the shuttle-like thermal tiles covering its conical sides
Re-entry: a camera aboard Orion captures the limb of the Earth, with the flames of super-heated plasma just visible at the top, as the bow shock compression of air in front of the craft generates enormous friction with the air around it. Temperatures within the plasma reach 2,200C (twice that of molten lava) directly in front of the capsule, and about 1,800C around it, all of which is prevented from burning-up the vehicle by the presence of the heat shield “under” the capsule and the shuttle-like thermal tiles covering its conical sides

Passing through the Van Allen radiation belts – a critical test for the vehicle’s radiation protection and its electronics – Orion rose to a height of over 5,800 km above the Earth prior to separating from the Delta upper stage and “dummy” Service Module to start its return to Earth under its own power. This allowed mission planners to test the vehicle’s propulsion systems, which also functioned perfectly and with a greater degree of accuracy than had been expected.

Indeed, the only “failures” encountered with the flight, were the loss of the parachute bay cover – a section of the spacecraft which protects Orion’s parachute systems, and which is jettisoned for later recovery following re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere – and the first set of drogue ‘chutes deployed. Following splash down, it was discovered that one of the 35-6 metre diameter main parachutes had sunk before it could be recovered, and one of the five floatation devices used to right the craft should it land inverted in the water (it didn’t), had failed to inflate.  All of these are really minimal loses when compared to the overall success of the flight.

A great shot from the recovery ship USS Anchorage, sent via the NASA Google Hangout covering the mission, showing Orion EFT-1 descending under 3 fully deployed main parachutes
A great shot from the recovery ship USS Anchorage, sent via the NASA Google Hangout covering the mission, showing Orion EFT-1 descending under 3 fully deployed main parachutes

There will now be a three-year pause in Orion flights. This will allow the first Service Module to be built and delivered to NASA by the European Space Agency and, more particularly, allow NASA to complete the construction of the first in its new generation of launch vehicles, a rocket simply referred to as the Space Launch System.

Even so, and as I recently blogged, Orion EFT-1 marks the first step in what will hopefully, political will allowing, be a new era in the exploration of our solar system. As such, and despite more than fifty years having passed since the first man orbited the Earth, it is fair to say that where space flight is concerned, the human adventure is just beginning.

 

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3 thoughts on “The human adventure is just beginning

  1. I like your space articles too! The test was wonderful. But having a manned Orion planned in about 6 years time from now instead of the 11 months passed between Apollo 4 (similar to this mission) and 7 (the 1st manned Apollo launch… and they landed on the Moon the next year!), shows how different the space exploration is now, whatever it is lack of clear goals, lack of funds and US govt interest, no more USSR vs USA space race, etc. There is also the argument that robotic missions can do most of the job with less risks and less money, but we still dream to go in space and to Mars ourselves. Maybe one day it will be normal to have a colony there, and this launch will be remembered as a milestone, although it isn’t granted that the first man or woman on Mars will be from NASA. As you, I hope that a new era of space exploration will start.

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    1. The slow-down in pace is spectacular compared to Apollo. Part of the reason is, as you say, a lack of political expedient – the driving force behind Apollo was the fact that when it kicked-off, America was “losing” the “space race”, and “losing badly”. This is exacerbated by a lack willpower. Nowadays, it is far easier for an administration to make grand announcements and offer heart-stirring visions – and then kick the hard decisions on spending down the road an administration or two and into someone else’s lap.

      However, NASA is also saddled with existing commitments – most notably the International Space Station. Despite all the promotional aspects of the functions the ISS is fulfilling in preparing the way for deep-space missions, it is not actually in any way essential to us going beyond LEO. Some would argue that, in fact, it’s been a grossly over-priced and hamstrung affair which has never fully lived-up to expectations and has helped to keep us locked in LEO for 40 years. As things are, it is due to be tossed away in 2020, in part so that NASA is freed up of its fiscal obligations in relation to it, allowing the agency greater freedom of expenditure.

      A further problem facing NASA is that as space is seen as “expensive” (something which itself doesn’t actually marry up to the facts), the large US public likely will not stomach a hefty increase in the agency’s budget allocation, unless matter of national pride come to the fore – which is unlikely. So the agency has to juggle a lot of balls in order to make things fit within the budget Congress considers “acceptable” in the public eye.

      But beyond this, there really isn’t a need to race forward (as much as I do so want to see an international crew living and working on Mars). The biggest negative legacy of Apollo is that despite the boost it gave to the US economy, to technology development, industry, education, etc., is that was a means to an end; once Apollo 11 touched-down on the Sea of Tranquillity, it was effectively over. Apollo 13 aside, every other mission was window-dressing, as Apollo simply didn’t allow for establishing any kind of real human presence in space. NASA has learnt from that (hopefully!), and is trying to build the foundations such that it won’t happen again. Thus, a step-by-step approach, although slower, is perhaps more warranted. It also presents less of a risk of things being cancelled in the future in some ways, as the agency can reasonably say to the White house / Congress, “but we’ve built the hardware. We’ve invested your money in it. It’s ready to go; we have the plans ready to go. Are you really going to tell the American people it’s time to throw it away now? That their tax dollars have been wasted?”

      Some have argued that Orion / SLS is going to end up doing what Project Constellation was going to do, which bad, bad, Barrak Obama cancelled in 2010. However, the truth with Constellation’s mainstay, the Ares launch system, is that although the Ares V (needed for missions to Mars and elsewhere) was supposed to be “low cost” to develop, due to its re-use of existing elements of shuttle technology, etc., it wasn’t working out. Costs were spiralling, there were significant engineering issues, etc. All of which meant that the vehicle would likely not have flown until the end of the 2020s, a decade after SLS will make it début flight in 2017 – thus pushing missions to Mars, etc., further over the horizon.

      Glad you like the space articles. I never know how well they are received, or if people simply ignore them, so it’s good the hear this kind of feedback. Thank you!

      (I’ll also be looking more closely at human missions to Mars – including the proposed private-sector missions, and at at least one of the ways in which we could have been there by around 2018 – more closely in the future.)

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