On Friday, NASA performed its latest test of the Orion capsule, the next-generation spaceship that will carry human crews. Since the long-overdue retirement of the Space Shuttle, the United States space program has relied on Russia to get astronauts into orbit. But Orion is more than a Space Shuttle replacement: it’s intended to travel beyond Earth orbit, possibly even to Mars. Friday’s test flight (originally scheduled for Thursday, but scrubbed after a run of bad luck) was uncrewed, but designed to check Orion’s ability to fly through the Van Allen radiation belts, reenter the atmosphere, and land in the ocean. The total flight lasted 4 hours and 24 minutes, and went exactly as expected.
I wrote this about Orion before the launch, but other than the minor detail about when the flight was to take place, everything else in it is still correct.
Orion will orbit Earth twice before splashing down off the California coast. The total test will take roughly 4-1/2 hours, during which NASA engineers will collect data on how the capsule handles its flight and environment. The flight will also carry symbolic items, such as Cookie Monster’s cookie, poetry, and a fragment of a fossil bone from the dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex.
All of this is necessary because Orion will go farther than any crewed spacecraft since the end of the Apollo program in the 1970s. For 30 years, spaceflight was focused on projects like the Space Shuttle, a reusable space plane designed to operate in low Earth orbit. While that was fine for building and servicing projects like the Hubble Space Telescope or the International Space Station, the Shuttle was simply not designed to fly higher. [read more….]