Space & Innovation

Orion Spaceship Aces Debut Test Flight

NASA's new Orion spaceship nailed its orbital debut flight, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean after a 4.5-hour journey.

NASA's new Orion spaceship nailed its orbital debut flight, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean after a 4.5-hour journey that took it past the Van Allen radiation belts, a key test of its ability to operate in deep space.

After a day's delay to iron out a problem with the Delta 4 Heavy rocket that booted Orion into orbit, the spacecraft, which flew without a crew for its first flight, flawlessly ran through an automated series of commands and maneuvers to test 13 different technologies needed to one day put astronauts on Mars.

"All the systems functioned to perfection," NASA mission commentator Rob Navias said as Orion neared the end of its trial run.

Photos: Orion's Journey High Above Earth

The test flight began at 7:05 a.m. EST with liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and ended four hours, 23 minutes later with a parachute landing 630 southwest of San Diego.

In between, Orion successfully fired explosive charges to discard spent components, steered in orbit and survived high levels of radiation as it passed up and back through the Van Allen belts of radiation that surround the planet.

At peak altitude, Orion was 3,604 miles from Earth -- farther than any spacecraft designed for humans has been since the last Apollo moon mission in 1972.

The most challenging part of the flight was yet to come: a 20,000 mph dive back into Earth's atmosphere, nearly as fast as a spaceship returning from lunar orbit.

Photos: NASA's Asteroid Capture Mission

"The moment of truth for Orion," Navias said as the spaceship begin its plunge back to Earth.

Orion's half-ton, 16.5-diameter heat shield bore the brunt of temperatures that reached 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit -- twice as hot as molten lava.

Eventually, NASA plans to use the capsule to fly astronauts to and from Mars.

It will take a lot more than an Orion capsule to land crews on Mars, but today's debut test flight of its new human spaceship is a critical first step, says NASA.

Another Orion capsule, also unmanned, is due to fly in 2018 on a second test flight that includes the debut of NASA's new heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket.

Astronauts are expected to fly aboard the third Orion spaceship around 2021 on a mission that will make a high pass around the moon.

"This first step is a huge one," space station commander Butch Wilmore said during an inflight interview on NASA Television. "It's a thrilling prospect when you think about actually exploring the solar system. Who knows where it will take us."

Three main parachutes, measuring 116 feet in diameter each, help slow Orion's return to Earth.

A Delta IV Heavy rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida carrying NASA's Orion spacecraft on an unpiloted flight test to Earth orbit. Liftoff was at 7:05 a.m. EST.

Orion Spaceship Blasts Off at Dawn

The spacecraft on its way to its two-orbit, four-and-a-half hour mission high above and around Earth.

Astronauts on board the International Space Station watch the flight from their orbital perch.

An onboard camera offers a view of Space Launch Complex 37 just after launch.

A view during the separation of one of the Delta IV Heavy rocket boosters as it separates following liftoff.

An onboard camera captures separation of the three 13 by 14-foot Orion service module fairings following liftoff.

Orion's view of Earth from just under 3,000 miles above. That's just 600 miles shy of its peak altitude above Earth.

Earth -- as seen from Orion's pilot window at some 3,000 miles above Earth.

U.S. Navy ships stand ready to help recover Orion at the splashdown site in the Pacific.

Three main parachutes, measuring 116 feet in diameter each, help slow Orion's return to Earth.

The Orion crew module as it floats in the Pacific Ocean. Hopefully on a future flight, astronauts will be waiting to exit!

Orion Spaceship Aces Debut Test Flight