CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) – NASA’s new Orion spacecraft zoomed toward a high point of 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometres) on an orbital test flight Friday, ushering in a new era of exploration that could one day put people on Mars.
The unmanned orbital journey began with a sunrise liftoff witnessed by thousands of NASA guests. Parts of the spacecraft peeled away exactly as planned, falling back toward Earth as onboard cameras provided stunning views of our blue, cloud-covered planet.
Orion’s debut will be brief – just 4 1/2 hours from launch to splashdown, with two orbits of Earth. But for the first time in 42 years, NASA is sending a spacecraft built for humans farther than a couple hundred miles from Earth. The previous time was the Apollo 17 moon shot.
And it’s NASA’s first new vehicle for space travel since the shuttle.
“Very exciting,” NASA’s Orion program manager, Mark Geyer, said early in the flight. “We still have a bunch to go.”
NASA is now “one step closer” to putting humans aboard Orion, said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. He called it “Day One of the Mars era”.
Sluggish rocket valves and wind halted the launch Thursday, but everything went NASA’s way Friday as the Delta IV rocket carried Orion into orbit. The first-stage boosters detached and fell away into the Atlantic as the spacecraft soared from Florida to South Africa and beyond.
NASA launch commentator Mike Curie fed the enthusiasm in the gathered crowds, calling it “the dawn of Orion in a new era of American space exploration!”
NASA was aiming for a peak altitude of 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometres) on Orion’s second lap around the planet – more than 14 times higher than the International Space Station – in order to give the capsule the necessary momentum for a scorchingly high-speed re-entry over the Pacific.
Engineers want to see how the heat shield – the largest of its kind ever built – to create the momentum needed to re-enter the atmosphere at 20,000 mph (32,200 kph) with an outside temperature of 4,000 degrees (2,200 Celsius).
The capsule’s heat shield is the largest of its kind ever made, and engineers were anxious to see how it holds up.
Back at Kennedy Space Center, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the shuttle-flying days, but considerably more upbeat than that last mission in 2011.
Astronaut Rex Walheim was aboard that final shuttle flight and joined dozens of space fliers on hand for this historic send-off. He talked up Orion’s future in sending crews to Mars and the importance of becoming what he called “a multi-planetary species.”
“You have that excitement back here at the Kennedy Space Center and it’s tinged with even more excitement with what’s coming down the road,” Walheim said.
His enthusiasm was shared by Chris Tarkinton, who traveled from Poquoson, Virginia, to watch from the nearby causeway.
“It’s been a while since we’ve been able to launch something of this magnitude,” Tarkinton said. “Awe inspiring.”
In Houston, NASA’s Mission Control took over the entire operation once Orion was aloft. The flight program was loaded into Orion’s computers well in advance, allowing the spacecraft to fly essentially on autopilot. Flight controllers – all shuttle veterans – could intervene in the event of an emergency breakdown.