NASA’s Orion splashes down in the Pacific after flawless test flight

NASA declared today a “milestone” in humans’ journey to Mars. On Friday morning, the Orion space capsule completed a perfect flight test, taking off from Cape Canaveral at 7:05 a.m. ET. Orion orbited Earth twice, once at a height of 3,600 miles, before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles southwest of San Diego.

“Today’s flight test of Orion is a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space on our Journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a press release. “The teams did a tremendous job putting Orion through its paces in the real environment it will endure as we push the boundary of human exploration in the coming years.”

The unmanned spacecraft traveled through the Van Allen belt, and withstood the high periods of radiation exposure. After 4.5 hours of flight, Orion plunged through the atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour. Its surface reached temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The test flight allowed engineers to monitor how Orion held up to the extreme reentry speeds, temperatures and deep space radiation that astronauts will face on trips beyond the moon and eventually to Mars.

In a NASA press release, Orion program manager Mark Geyer said engineers will use today’s data to prepare the next Orion module for its next test: a flight with the heavy-duty Space Launch Systems rocket, which the agency hopes will send later manned missions to deep space.

Below you can follow NewsHour’s coverage of the launch:

Update: 12:44 p.m. ET | Recovery vessels from the U.S. Navy are on their way to pick up Orion.

“While this was an unmanned mission, we were all on board Orion,” said NASA mission control in Houston before signing off. NASA put several mementos and memorabilia on Orion for its maiden voyage. It’s an old tradition for the space program, dating back to the Mercury astronauts, who carried dimes in their pockets as mementos of Earth. Here are some of the things on board this flight:

An oxygen hose like those from the Apollo mission spacesuits
A tiny sample of lunar soil
A Tyrannosaurus rex fossil from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, to remind us of how far life on Earth has come
A microchip with the names of more than a million people who submitted their names to NASA
A recording of “We Shall Overcome” by Denyce Graves
Several poems by poet Maya Angelou, including “Brave and Startling Truth”
A recording of “Mars” from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” performed by the National Symphony Orchestra
A copy of a poem by Marshall Jones
A small sculpture by Ed Dwight called “Pioneer Woman”
Cookie Monster’s cookie, Ernie’s rubber ducky, Slimey the Worm and Grover’s cape from the long-running children’s show “Sesame Street”, to inspire future generations of scientists and engineers
Sally Ride’s STS-7 crew patch from her 1983 Challenger flight, and an excerpt from her book “The Mystery of Mars”

Update: 11:29 a.m. ET | A “bullseye” splashdown for Orion in the Pacific, approximately 630 miles southwest of San Diego — the end of its maiden voyage. NASA says all its systems functioned perfectly.

Update: 11:24 a.m. ET | “There is your new spacecraft, America,” said NASA mission control. The main chute has deployed and Orion is on its way to splashdown in the Pacific.

Update: 7:05 a.m. ET | The Orion spacecraft blasted off at 7:05 a.m. ET Friday morning atop a Delta 4 heavy rocket, soaring through the Earth’s atmosphere and into space.

“Liftoff at dawn. The dawn of Orion and a new era of space exploration,” NASA’s flight control announced as the spacecraft lifted off from the launch pad. And 17 minutes after launch, NASA reported “a perfect insertion into its first orbit.”

The unmanned Orion will orbit the Earth twice in 4.5 hours, rising to a height of 3,600 miles above the Earth’s atmosphere, high enough for the capsule to be exposed to a large dose of space radiation. Then, at a speed of 20,000 miles per hour, it will drop back through the atmosphere, testing its heat shield and parachutes and splash down into the Pacific Ocean 600 miles off the coast of Baja California.

This mission is a test flight, NASA’s first step in a journey to explore Mars. Orion is set to take four astronauts into deep space — to an asteroid and eventually Mars, sometime in the late 2030’s.

You can watch the launch here:

Don’t miss Miles O’Brien’s report on the Orion mission from Wednesday’s PBS NewsHour:

6:59 a.m. ET | Launch director gives the final clear to launch the Orion spacecraft on a Delta 4 heavy rocket.

6:57 a.m. ET | Here’s Orion’s team listening to the countdown. L minus 7 minutes.

6:51 a.m. ET | Mission control is counting down to launch.

6:50 a.m. ET | From mission control: “Less than 16 minutes remains of Orion spacecraft on its maiden voyage.” Launch is a go, no issues and “weather remains green,” engineers say.

Update: 6:35 a.m. ET | NASA reports that it’s so far set to launch the Orion capsule at 7:05 a.m. ET this morning. “Weather is 40 percent go.” This comes after the launch was scrubbed on Thursday morning due to a mechanical issue.

And here’s a beauty shot from the launch pad while we wait:

Thursday, December 4

Update 2:18 p.m. ET| In a press conference this afternoon, United Launch Alliance’s Dan Collins, chief operating officer in charge of the Delta IV rocket, said that the malfunctioning valves ultimately scrubbed the launch. He also added that if weather or other problems cancel the launch Friday, it may be possible to try again on Saturday.

Update 9:37 a.m. ET | NASA has announced that the Orion launch is scrubbed for today. The next window will open in just under 24 hours, at 7:05 a.m. ET Friday.


Update 9:25 a.m. ET | With about 20 minutes left in the launch window, the team is preparing to make one last attempt at clearing the fill and drain issue, according to mission control engineers.

Update: 9:07 a.m. ET | From mission control, engineers are attempting to cycle the valves again. “Hopefully that will do the trick and we will be able to go for the launch attempt today. We still have a little bit less than 40 minutes remaining in the launch window today, and we’ll stand by for word on the troubleshooting.”

Update: 8:40 a.m. ET | The launch is on hold now due to a valve not closing. The latest from mission control is that engineers are cycling the fill and drain valves in each of the rocket’s boosters five times, a process that’s been successful in the past. We will keep you posted here with updates. There’s still about an hour remaining in the launch window. From NASA’s Twitter feed:


And from astronomer/ science writer Phil Plait:


Due to gusty winds, technical issues and a civilian boat impeding on the launch site, NASA has delayed the launch to later in today’s window. Orion can launch safely anytime before 9:44 a.m. ET. We are standing by.

Wednesday, December 3

NASA is preparing to launch the Orion spacecraft on its first test flight Thursday morning at 7:05am EST, with a 2-hour, 39-minute launch window.

Barring any delays, the unmanned Orion will orbit the Earth twice in 4.5 hours, rising to a height of 3,600 miles above the Earth. Then it will drop back through the Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour.

At that speed, Orion will heat up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Orion’s 11 parachutes will open, slowing the spacecraft’s plummet to 20 miles an hour when it lands in the Pacific ocean, 600 miles southwest of San Diego.

Orion is NASA’s latest step to taking astronauts beyond the moon. Apart from testing the capsule’s ability to handle launch and reentry, this unmanned flight will test the capsule’s shielding in the Van Allen Belt, a bubble of radiation surrounding the Earth. No manned space mission has crossed the Van Allen Belt since the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s. If astronauts hope to reach asteroids, or even Mars, they will undergo more radiation than ever before.

It’s also an opportunity to test Orion’s state-of-the-art computer, which can handle 480 million instructions per second — 25 times faster than the International Space Station’s computer.

NASA hopes to use Orion to send astronauts to an asteroid to gather samples in 2021. That mission will clear the way for a manned mission to Mars.