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Orion's Flight Test: The Results Are In!

Feb 21, 2015 05:09 PM EST
Orion
(Photo : U.S. Navy) NASA's Orion spacecraft awaits the US Navy's USS Anchorage for a ride home. Orion launched into space on a two-orbit, five-hour test flight at 7:05 am EST on Dec. 5, and returned safely in the Pacific Ocean. The recovery after splashdown took less than six hours. Note that only two of five balloons atop the craft properly inflated.

It's been more than two months since NASA's premier Orion spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after a flawless - not to mention its very first - test flight. Now important data from that flight is coming in, and NASA's engineers and partners are already hard at work constructing and improving the next Orion for a second flight.

"Orion's flight test was a big success and what we learned is informing how we design, develop and build future Orions that will help us pioneer deep space destinations," Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion Program manager explained in a recent statement. "Taking a look at all the flight test data is a huge part of the development process and a key part off in why we flew a test flight. We have critical work happening this year, both on the data analysis and development side, to keep us moving toward our first mission with SLS."

That next "first mission" Geyer is talking about is the Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1. This will be the first test mission with astronauts on-board, as the craft was designed to carry humans far beyond our moon. Experts will work to not only ensure the safety of our indeed astronauts (NASA already brags that Orion is the safest spacecraft ever built) but to also make it a perfect fit atop the premier Space Launch System - NASA's latest flagship rocket.

The rocket will not only be able to support the considerable bulk of an Orion laden with cargo and astronauts, but will also be able to see the spacecraft off even into deep space missions - such as getting humans on Mars. NASA, swelling with pride, brags that this "most powerful rocket ever built" will likely see its first flight no later than Nov. 2018. (Scroll to read on...)

Artist concept of the SLS lifting off during its first flight test mission.
(Photo : NASA/MSFC) Artist concept of the SLS lifting off during its first flight test mission.

Of course, that's a long way off, and first NASA and Locked Martin engineers have to work out some kinks in what is otherwise a surprisingly flawless spacecraft design. Initial observation observed that the craft's landing apparati worked to a T.

Michael Hawes, Orion Program manager for Lockheed Martin, NASA's prime contractor for the spacecraft, explained that the Orion heat shielding preformed adequately - which should be no surprise as it's the same shielding that prevented NASA's iconic space shuttles from burning to crispy ships.

Additionally, all of the spacecraft separation events happened within fractions of a second of when predictive models expected, and Orion's 11 parachutes worked well, allowing the spacecraft to touchdown relatively gently.

However, atop the craft, only two of the five airbags - which are meant to keep the craft stable during splashdown - properly inflated.

"We're in the midst of troubleshooting that now," Hawes said.

Still as things are, Geyger stands by his proclamation that the first Orion test was one of the most successful flight tests for an experimental craft NASA has ever seen.

"It is hard to have a better day than today," had said in a statement back in December.

"I don't think you could find an astronaut who wouldn't be excited to fly Orion," Orion mission specialist Rex Walheim, a former space shuttle pilot and astronaut, added. "This is true exploration."

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

(Photo : NASA Television) "Some of those pictures where you could see out the frame of [Orion's] window, you don't feel like you're watching like a satellite, you feel like an astronaut yourself." - Mark Geyer

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