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Orion Gets the 'Go' For Tomorrow's Historic Flight Test

Dec 03, 2014 01:52 PM EST
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(Photo : NASA/Kim Shiflett) The Orion spacecraft passes the Kennedy spaceport's iconic Vehicle Assembly Building on it's way to it's December launch.

Managers from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Lockheed Martin gave a "go" to proceed with Orion's historic flight test tomorrow, an unmanned version of the same spacecraft that NASA will one day use to send astronauts to Mars. This will be the first test of the craft's crucial and experimental systems in a real flight scenario.

The Orion What Now?

The public has known about the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) since May 2011, after its design was repurposed from NASA's cancelled Constellation program for deep space exploration.

However, aside from your occasional NASA enthusiast, it's very possible that few of your friends can tell you anything about it.

That's at least according to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden when talking to Nation Public Radio (NPR).

"Back in March of 1969, if you asked somebody about America's space program, they may have said, 'I think we've got this Apollo thing,' or something like that," he said, unsurprised that it is no different with new missions today.

He explained that with the Orion program, despite efforts to keep the public involved, it's unlikely that most citizens will notice it until the craft is actually flying on their TV sets and over their heads.

That day, however, is nearly upon us. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : NASA)

Earning its Wings

With the launch conditions forecast staying an encouraging "60 percent 'go'" for tomorrow's test, Orion will be rocketed through our atmosphere for the first time before plummeting back to Earth at break-neck speeds.

"Orion is the first spacecraft built for astronauts destined for deep space since the storied Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s. It is designed to go farther than humans have ever traveled, well beyond the Moon, pushing the boundaries of spaceflight to new heights," NASA recently announced.

However, before any man or woman is allowed to crew the craft, Orion has to prove itself as a safe and consistent flyer.

The main goal of this first flight, dubbed the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be to test the spacecraft's groundbreaking systems. Many of these systems, such as Orion's new heavy payload parachutes, are experimental and have never seen actual spaceflight, so it is crucial that NASA learns all they can from EFT-1.

Tomorrow's test will also be assessing NASA's precaution, lest anything go terribly wrong in a manned launch.

NASA engineers designed the Launch Abort System (LAS) on the Orion crew module with the claim that it will make the Orion "the safest spacecraft ever built."

In the event of an emergency during launch, the LAS can activate and pull the crew module away from the launch pad, and effectively out of harm's way, in milliseconds.

And while the LAS, having already seen ground tests, won't be activated during the unmanned EFT-1, the system still has to flawlessly jettison away from the module six minutes and 20 seconds after lift-off. If this does not occur, the LAS will be blocking the hatch from where the Orion deploys its landing parachutes. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : NASA/Orion blog)

Perhaps most importantly, this flight will be testing the shielding, aerodynamics, and real-time computations aboard Orion. While all these can be tested with math, the only true way to see if a paper airplane can fly is by throwing it.

It's no different for Orion, which will experience temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,204 Celsius) during Thursday's test, and will come back at about 80 percent of the speed the spacecraft would endure returning from the vicinity of the Moon.

The only primary difference between this and a real mission, it should be noted, is that Orion is being carried out of our atmosphere by a Delta IV Heavy rocket, not the flagship Space Launch System (still in development) that will be its actual carrier during future missions.

"Testing these capabilities now will help ensure that Orion will be the next generation spacecraft for missions in the 2020s that will put Mars within the reach of astronauts in the 2030s," NASA said Monday.

If all goes well, Orion's first major mission will be the follow-up to the Asteroid Redirect Mission, where astronauts will explore a "captured" asteroid that will be placed in a stable orbit around the Moon.

Continuous countdown, launch (7:05 am EST), and mission coverage will begin at 4:30 am tomorrow (Dec. 4) on the Orion Blog and on NASA TV which is available on air and streaming at www.nasa.gov/nasatv.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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