Weather Forecast for Orion EFT-1 Launch Improves Slightly

Weather Forecast for Orion EFT-1 Launch Improves Slightly

The chance that the launch of the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission will take place tomorrow morning is slightly better than reported yesterday.  Air Force weather officer Kathy Winters announced today that the chances of violating weather constraints are only 30 percent rather than 40 percent as previously forecast.  That means a 70 percent chance that the weather will be OK for the 7:05 am Eastern Standard Time (EST) launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.

As anyone who follows space launches knows, weather is only one factor that determines if a launch will take place as scheduled, but at least from that standpoint, the situation is looking relatively good.  There is a 2 hour 40 minute launch window, which also provides flexibility.   Still, Winters pointed out that there is an easterly flow pattern that could cause coastal showers or gusty winds that leave a 30 percent chance of a weather-related scrub.

The launch is on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy rocket.  Orion is being developed to someday carry astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, but no one will be aboard this flight, or the next one in 2017 or 2018, which will be launched on the first flight of the new Space Launch System (SLS) NASA is developing.   The first flight with a crew, using SLS, is not anticipated until 2021.

The NASA-Lockheed Martin EFT-1 mission will only last about 4.5 hours before the Orion capsule splashes down in the Pacific Ocean where it will be recovered.  The weather at the recovery site also looks good for tomorrow.

EFT-1 is primarily testing heat shield materials.  It has been four decades since the United States sent a spacecraft intended to carry people as far from Earth as Orion will go — 3,600 miles — and it will reenter at a much higher velocity than spacecraft that go back and forth to the International Space Station.  

NASA is holding a dizzying array of traditional and social media events to build interest in EFT-1 using the theme Journey to Mars.  While Orion is indeed intended to support human trips to Mars someday, that someday is far in the future.  President Obama’s 2010 National Space Policy calls for humans to orbit — but not land on — Mars in the 2030s and a recent National Research Council report concluded that unless NASA gets a significant budget increase, it will not happen until long after that.  Orion is just one piece of hardware needed for a mission to Mars and NASA would need money to build a habitation module for the crew to live in for the long trip, for example, and a landing system if the goal is to land on Mars.

Nonetheless, the launch tomorrow is a first step.  NASA TV will provide live coverage beginning at 4:30 am EST and lasting until splashdown.  NASA said today that it hopes to be able to show real-time images of the capsule returning to Earth under its parachutes, but will not provide live coverage of recovery operations.

Orion looks like the Apollo capsule and will splashdown in the Pacific under three parachutes as Apollo did.  In response to a question as to whether NASA has been consulting with people who worked on the Apollo program regarding the EFT-1 launch and recovery (the answer was yes), Orion lead flight director Mike Sarafin revealed that iconic Apollo flight director Gene Kranz will be a VIP guest in mission control at Johnson Space Center, TX during the EFT-1 mission.  Kranz is best known for leading the effort to return the Apollo 13 crew safely to Earth after their spacecraft experienced an explosion while enroute to the Moon.  He is associated with the phrase “Failure is Not an Option,” even though he never spoke those words during the Apollo 13 emergency.  They were spoken by his character in the movie Apollo 13 and he also chose it as the title of his autobiography.

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