NASA LAUNCHES NEW ORION SPACECRAFT – AMERICA’S NEW ERA IN SPACE BEGINS

Washington Times on December 5, 2014, reported that NASA’s new Orion spacecraft streaked toward orbit on a high-stakes test flight meant to usher in a new era of human exploration leading ultimately to Mars. Excerpts below:

The unmanned orbital journey began with a sunrise liftoff witnessed by thousands of NASA guests eager to watch what the agency called “history in the making.”

“The star of the day is Orion,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr., back for the second morning in a row. He called it “Day One of the Mars era.”

Orion’s debut will be brief – just 4½ hours from launch to splashdown, with two orbits of Earth. But for the first time in 42 years, NASA is sending a spacecraft built for humans farther than a couple hundred miles from Earth. The previous time was the Apollo 17 moon shot.

And it’s NASA’s first new vehicle for space travel since the shuttle.

Friday’s flight test brings NASA “one step closer” to putting humans aboard Orion, Bolden said just before liftoff.

Sluggish rocket valves and wind halted a launch attempt on December 4. Everything went NASA’s way a day later, and the Delta IV rocket blasted off with Orion as dawn broke.

The atmosphere at Kennedy Space Center was reminiscent of the shuttle-flying days. After more than three years since the last shuttle flight, NASA reveled in all the attention.

In Houston, NASA’s Mission Control took over the entire operation once Orion was aloft. The flight program was loaded into Orion’s computers well in advance, allowing the spacecraft to fly essentially on autopilot. Flight controllers – all shuttle veterans – 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.

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. In addition, on-board computers were going to endure the high-radiation Van Allen belts; engineers wondered whether they might falter.

Lockheed Martin Corp. already has begun work on a second Orion, and plans to eventually build a fleet of the capsules. The earliest that astronauts might fly on an Orion is 2021. An asteroid redirected to lunar orbit is intended for the first stop in the 2020s, followed by Mars in the 2030s.

Dozens of astronauts, present and past, gathered at Kennedy for the historic send-off. One of them – Bolden – now leads NASA.

He called Mars “the ultimate destination of this generation,” but said his three young granddaughters think otherwise, telling him, “Don’t get hung up on Mars because there are other places to go once we get there.”

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