It’s the first attempt to send a spacecraft capable of carrying humans beyond a couple hundred miles of Earth since the Apollo moon program.
NASA anticipated 26,000 guests for the sunrise send-off — the roads leading into Kennedy Space Center were packed well before dawn — and the atmosphere was reminiscent of the shuttle-flying days. “Go Orion!!” urged a hotel billboard in nearby Cocoa Beach.
Launch commentator Mike Curie noted Thursday was the 16th anniversary of the launch of the first U.S. piece of the International Space Station, by shuttle Endeavour. “That was the beginning of the space station, and today is the dawn of Orion,” he said.
Orion is aiming for two orbits on this inaugural run. On the second lap around the home planet, the spacecraft should reach a peak altitude of 3,600 miles, high enough to ensure a re-entry speed of 20,000 mph and an environment of 4,000 degrees. Splashdown will be in the Pacific off the Mexican Baja coast, where Navy ships already are waiting.
NASA’s Mission Control in Houston was all set to oversee the entire 4 1/2-hour operation. The flight program was loaded into Orion’s computers well in advance, allowing the spacecraft to fly essentially on autopilot. Flight controllers could intervene in the event of an emergency breakdown.
The spacecraft is rigged with 1,200 sensors to gauge everything from heat to vibration to radiation. At 11 feet tall with a 16.5-foot base, Orion is bigger than the old-time Apollo capsules and, obviously, more advanced. As NASA’s program manager Mark Geyer noted, “The inside of the capsule is totally different.”
NASA deliberately kept astronauts off this first Orion.
Managers want to test the riskiest parts of the spacecraft — the heat shield, parachutes, various jettisoning components — before committing to a crew. The earliest Orion might carry passengers is 2021; asteroids are on the space agency’s radar sometime in the 2020s and Mars, the grand prize, in the 2030s.
Lockheed Martin Corp., which is handling the $370 million test flight for NASA, opted for the powerful Delta IV rocket this time around. Future Orion missions will rely on NASA’s still-in-development megarocket known as SLS, or Space Launch System. The first Orion-SLS combo launch is targeted for 2018.