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.
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.
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).
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.
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.