Photos Show Orion After Splashdown

Photos Show Orion After Splashdown

NASA has released photos of its Orion capsule floating in the Pacific at the end of its Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission on Friday.  The capsule was recovered by a NASA-U.S. Navy team and will be on display for the media today (Monday, December 8) at Naval Base San Diego.

Orion was successfully launched on Friday, December 5, from Cape Canaveral, FL on a Delta IV rocket, after a one-day delay.  It splashed down in the Pacific about four-and-a-half hours later after two Earth orbits.  The purpose of the launch was primarily to test Orion’s heat shield.  Although the spacecraft is being designed to carry people, no one was aboard this version, which is only a test model that is not equipped with life support systems, for example.  The first launch of an Orion carrying a crew is not expected until at least 2021.

Orion was recovered aboard the USS Anchorage, which is seen in the background of this photo of Orion floating in the Pacific at the end of its two-orbit mission. Two of the orange Crew Module Uprighting System (CMUS) airbags are shown in the photo.  In one of the few glitches in the test, one CMUS underinflated and another did not inflate.  They are used to turn the capsule right side up if it lands upside down in the water and fortunately were not needed.   More photos are posted on NASA’s Orion website.


Orion test spacecraft in Pacific Ocean off Baja California at end of EFT-1 mission, December 5, 2014.  Photo credit:  NASA

The EFT-1 mission was conducted by Lockheed Martin, Orion’s manufacturer, which contracted for the Delta IV launch from United Launch Alliance.  NASA is buying the resulting data from Lockheed Martin.  NASA estimates the cost of the EFT-1 mission at $370 million, which is only for the launch and non-reusable parts of the spacecraft.  It plans to use the capsule for another test flight, so its cost is not included in the estimate.

NASA is engaged in a media blitz surrounding the mission under the theme “Journey to Mars.”   While Orion is being designed to someday send humans to Mars, such flights are in the long term future.   President Obama’s National Space Policy calls for humans to orbit, not land on, Mars in the 2030s and many are skeptical that is achievable with the budgets envisioned for NASA for the indefinite future.  Landing on Mars is an even more expensive and technically challenging level of effort than simply orbiting, since a spacecraft is needed that can descend through the atmosphere, land safely, support humans for many months, ascend and return to Earth.  The Mars Curiosity rover — famous for its “7 minutes of terror” during landing — weighs only one ton, a fraction of what a spacecraft carrying humans would weigh.

President Obama did not release a statement after the EFT-1 test, but his science adviser, John Holdren, praised the mission although the statement was as much about broad Administration space policy, including its priority of developing commercial crew systems to take astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS), as Orion. 

Orion originally was part of President George W. Bush’s Constellation program to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2020 and to Mars thereafter.  President Obama proposed cancelling the Constellation program in 2010 (as part of the FY2011 budget process), igniting a firestorm of controversy.  Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress opposed cancelling Constellation and were not enthusiastic about commercial crew.  In the end, Congress and the President compromised in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act where Congress agreed to the commercial crew initiative (though it has not provided the amount of funding the President wants) and to cancelling Constellation, but in return for NASA building a new large rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to enable humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit.  Orion was selected as the MPCV so is one of the few elements of the Constellation program to survive.  The first destination for SLS/Orion remains controversial — President Obama wants to send astronauts to an asteroid, but the concept has not generated much support.

Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee also praised the EFT-1 mission in separate statements.  That committee’s Space Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the status of Orion and SLS on Wednesday.


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