|Orion craft launches on test flight. (NASA)|
Destined to carry four astronauts to an asteroid and the Moon during the next decade, the Lockheed Martin-built Orion spacecraft was uncrewed as NASA aims to learn how it will perform both in space and during it's return home.
"It's the beginning of exploration It's the beginning of putting Orion in space," exclaimed NASA Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer. "On a flight test like this if there are subtleties in how the vehicle behaves with the environments, my hope is that we find that on this test flight."
The launch occurred a few minutes after sunrise and one day late following an attempt to get the Delta IV off the ground. Problem plagued fuel valves, winds and a stray civilian boat forced launch control to scrub on Thursday.
Thousands of spectators returned to the beaches and causeways around Cape Canaveral early Friday, many who camped for three days just to secure a good place. "We arrived at our hotel on Cocoa Beach a few days ago just so that we could watch the launch," said Jennifer Hyatt of East Lancing, Michigan. "The lift-off this morning was incredible with the rumble and smoke column."
The prelaunch activities happened during the predawn hours as the United Launch Alliance launch team and the Air Force fueled the Delta IV rocket and brought the Orion spacecraft to life. The trouble free countdown neared its end as the first rays of the Sun broke above the Atlantic horizon and bathed the 250-foot tall rocket.
As the countdown reached zero, the Delta IV-Heavy's three liquid-fueled boosters roared to life and lifted off at 7:05:01 a.m. EST, beginning America's next step toward returning humanity to deep space in six years.
America's largest rocket climbed away from America's Space Coast riding a 400-foot golden flame of 2 million pounds of thrust. Nearly 90 seconds later, the rocket and its payload reached the speed of sound as it began tracking toward the east-southeast.
Soaring on the edge of space, the Delta's fuel-empty twin rocket boosters separated from the sides of the core booster nearly four minutes into the ascent. The first stage engine then continued to burn for an addition 95 seconds before separating. The Delta's second stage then took over as its smaller engine began an 11 minute and 50 second burn.
With the shutdown of the second stage engine Orion reached an initial Earth orbit of 115 x 552 miles at 7:34 a.m. Applause echoed from launch control in Florida to NASA Mission Control near Houston. The second stage would later reignite to send Orion and its "dummy"service module further into space about two hours after lift-off.
"Very exciting!" a grinning Mark Geyer added minutes following Orion's arrival in earth orbit. "The launch itself was a blast. Excited as it went into space."
Orion's four and one-half hour flight is sending it around the planet twice with controllers maneuvering the spacecraft deep into space up to an altitude of 3,600 miles.
After plunging through the Earth's atmosphere at 20,000 m.p.h. and creating 4000 degrees F of friction, the spacecraft will be slowed by the deployment of several sets of parachutes. As Orion descends, two U.S. Navy helicopters will be high in the air to follow the spacecraft with video cameras.
Orion is expected to complete its mission in the Pacific Ocean with a near pinpoint splashdown 600 miles west of Baja California at 11:41 a.m. following an on time launch. Two Naval ships, the USS Anchorage and the USNS Salvor will be in contact with mission control during Orion's return as the two ships prepare to recover and return the charred spacecraft to a San Diego pier.
A large truck will then return Orion back to the Kennedy Space Center before Christmas for analysis and then refurbishment for a future launch abort test, Geyer confirmed on Tuesday.
This first Orion launch ushered the realism of NASA's new direction in human spaceflight. As NASA supports commercial access to the International Space Station, the space agency has been preparing to focus on the job of sending humanity beyond low earth orbit and eventually to the Red Planet.
"This is the first human-rated spacecraft that's gone beyond LEO in forty-two years," Lockheed Martin Orion program manager Mike Hawes said with a smile. "It is a big deal to get out beyond the Van Allen (radiation) belts, to get out in that space environment."
The next Orion mission is expected to fly in 2018 on a second unmanned space flight.