The Orion spacecraft successfully completed its first test flight, an event described by some commentators as "the beginning of the Mars age."
Liftoff of the Orion spacecraft on its maiden voyage took place at 7:05 EST on December 5, from Space Launch Complex 37 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Orion will allow NASA astronauts to access space through an American launch vehicle for the first time since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program.
The $375 million dollar mission tested basic technologies needed to bring spacefarers to targets far from our home planet, and back again safely.
Launched aboard a Delta 4 heavy rocket, Orion spent four and a half hours during its first test flight, which brought the spacecraft around the Earth twice. A revolutionary new heat shield was tested during re-entry, as well as the parachute system. A new launch abort system, designed to safely evacuate astronauts on the launch pad or during re-entry, was also tested during the flight.
Orion flew 3,604 miles from the Earth before turning around to return back home. The spacecraft splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean.
Since the end of the Apollo program in the 1970's, NASA has remained in low-Earth orbit, flying space travelers on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS). The Orion space vehicle is the first vehicle available to the agency since that time capable of traveling to targets further away from the Earth. Plans for a NASA Mars mission in the 2030's hinge on successfully developing the Orion spacecraft to bring astronauts to asteroids and the Red Planet.
The Delta 4 rocket is the most powerful domestic booster available to NASA. A new booster rocket, part of the Space Launch System (SLS) is under development to deliver Orion on future missions. The next test flight of Orion, the first utilizing the new booster and with humans on board, is scheduled for 2018.
"Orion is the exploration spacecraft for NASA, and paired with the Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket it will allow us to explore the solar system," Mark Geyer, program manager of Orion, said.
During its historic flight, the Orion spacecraft passed through the Van Allen radiation belts, as it soared 15 times higher than the International Space Station.
Orion re-entered the atmosphere of the Earth at 20,000 miles per hour, heating up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it tore through the air. Instruments aboard the vehicle were subject to deceleration forces eight times greater than the force of gravity. Before splashdown, 11 parachutes deployed, slowing the vehicle enough for three main parachutes to be released for touchdown.