“And liftoff. At dawn. The dawn of Orion and a new era in American space exploration. There’s your new spacecraft, America.” –Rob Navias, Mission Control Commentator
On December 5, 2014 , NASA successfully completed the first unmanned test flight of the new Orion capsule, EFT-1 (experimental flight test 1). This launch was a historic moment in American history: it marked the first time in over 30 years that we have made significant progress toward manned deep space exploration and also the first time we have left low Earth orbit with a, soon to be, man-rated spacecraft (this was an unmanned test flight).
After a day-long delay, the Orion launched out of Cape Canaveral Air Station at 7:05 a.m. on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy lifting rocket, completed two highly elliptical orbits of Earth and landed approximately 600 miles off the coast of Baha, California. The Orion (and service module) traveled approximately 60,000 miles, reaching a height of 3,600 nautical miles away from Earth. To put this into perspective, the International Space Station orbits at ~250 miles, and we haven’t gone farther than this low earth orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972.
EFT-1 had three main goals: to test systems in the Orion necessary for deep space manned flight, to safely re-enter Earth atmosphere and land, and to carry the BIRD radiation detector. All three of these objectives were successful! While the entire mission was deemed successful, the re-entry was arguably the most exciting part! The Orion used three sets of parachutes to decelerate from 20,000 miles per hour to just 25 feet per second for a nice, gentle ocean splashdown. It was later recovered by the Naval ship USS Anchorage.
EFT-1 has provided us with valuable information on the Orion’s capabilities, radiation exposure and re-entry abilities. Even more importantly, though, this launch has reignited a passion in the United States—and to some extent the world as a whole—that we haven’t seen since the Apollo era. To once again send humans into outer space, to explore that final frontier… the time is now, and we are ready.