CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The future of NASA crewed spaceflights beyond Earth orbit will be put to the test Thursday as the space agency launches a new spacecraft to qualify it's performance in space and the capability of its heat shield during its return to earth.
Built by Lockheed Martin, the cone-shaped Orion spacecraft will fly uncrewed during this first test flight -- NASA's first step in returning Americans to the Moon in the 2020's and later an asteroid and on to Mars.
"This is special. This is our first step on that journey to Mars," exclaimed Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana on Monday. "This is a huge first step to be able to check out the vehicle on the Delta IV."
The success of this $370 million mission will weigh heavily for NASA as the space agency looks to recapture the glory days of human spaceflight. The end of the space shuttle program in 2011 marked the last time Americans soared into earth orbit from the United States. Orion will allow four astronauts to fly beyond low earth orbit beginning with the first crewed flight in 2021.
Private American companies are moving forward under NASA's leadership to prepare in launching astronauts to the space station a few years earlier, while NASA focuses on launching beyond earth orbit.
"We are going to test the riskier parts of the mission with ascent and entry," said NASA Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer. "Things like the faring separation, heat shield, parachutes, guidance... those kinds of things. As well as flying into deep space and examining the radiation effects on the avionics."
A massive Delta IV rocket will carry the Orion capsule into space beginning four minutes after sunrise at 7:05 a.m. EST, from Cape Canaveral to begin a brief two orbit flight returning with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off Baja California. NASA says that the launch window will extend for two hours and 39 minutes.
Air Force meteorologists indicate that weather is forecast 60% favorable at launch time with low clouds and rain showers moving inland. The United Launch Alliance-lead countdown will have three days of launch attempts if weather or technical issues become a factor.
The Delta IV-Heavy will use three liquid fueled boosters during the first few minutes of flight to push Orion toward orbit. Special cameras mounted outside the rocket will give controllers a unique view during staging. Seventeen minutes after lift-off, Orion will reach its initial orbit and set sail upon the vast ocean of space.
Once in space, flight controllers will maneuver the black craft still attached to it's white service module and upper stage -- raising its altitude during its second orbit to 3,600 miles in order the have Orion achieve a high velocity return to earth. NASA expects Orion to re-enter the atmosphere at nearly 20,000 m.p.h., a speed which will test the strength and durability of the capsule's heat shield as temperature's reach 4,000 degrees F.
"We've got a good blended team of operators and their all experienced," the mission's lead flight Director Mike Sarafin said. "We're gonna check out Orion and monitor its health and status leading up to splashdown. We'll relay the splashdown location and they know when and where to look to gather imagery at the splashdown and as where to recover the Orion capsule."
After surviving its fiery reentry, the spacecraft will be slowed by earth's atmosphere prior to deploying several sets of parachute. Two U.S. Navy helicopters will be in the air to follow the spacecraft with video cameras during its descent.
Orion is expected to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean approximately 600 miles southwest of San Diego, California at 11:29 a.m. following an on time launch. Two Naval ships, the USS Anchorage and the USNS Salvor will be awaiting Orion's return as the two ships recover and return the charred spacecraft to San Diego. The weather is forecast to be favorable over the open waters during the time of recovery.
The newly flown Orion will undergo modifications once post-flight
testing is complete to be used during a launch abort system test. Following a successful test flight, the space agency and Lockheed Martin will work toward the 2018 EM-1 launch with an Orion placed high atop the unflown Space Launch Systems rocket.