Since before the Shuttle’s retirement back in 2011 NASA has been looking towards building the next generation of craft that will take humans into space. This initially began with the incredibly ambitious Ares program which was set to create a series of rockets that would be capable of delivering humans to any place within our solar system. That program was cancelled in 2010 by President Obama and replaced with a more achievable vision, one that NASA could accommodate within its meagre budget. However not all the work that was done on that program was lost and the Orion capsule, originally intended to ride an Ares-I into space, made its maiden flight last week signalling a new era for NASA.
The profile for this mission is a fairly standard affair, serving as a shakedown of all the onboard systems and the launch stack as a whole. In terms of orbital duration it was a very short mission, lasting only 2 orbits, however that orbit allowed them to gather some key data on how the capsule will cope with deep space conditions. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the craft as the mission was meant to launch the day before however a few technical issues, mostly to do with the rockets, saw NASA miss the initial launch window. However the second time around they faced no such issues and with the wind playing nice Orion blasted off for its twice around the world voyage.
When I first read about the mission I was curious as to why it was launching into such an unusual orbit. To put it in perspective the apogee (the point of the orbit furthest away from the earth) was some 5,800KM which is an order of magnitude higher than anything else in low Earth orbit. As it turns out this was done deliberately to fling the Orion capsule through the lower Van Allen belt. These belts are areas of potentially damaging radiation, something which all intersolar craft must pass through on their journey to other planets in our solar system. Since Orion is slated to carry humans through here NASA needs to know how it copes with this potential hazard and, if there are any issues, begin working on a solution.
The launch system which propelled the Orion capsule into orbit was a Delta-IV Heavy which currently holds the crown for the amount of payload that can be delivered to low Earth orbit. It will be the first and last time that we’ll be seeing Orion riding this rocket as the next flight, slated for launch towards the end of 2018, will be the Space Launch System. This is the launch system that replaced the Ares series of rockets when Obama cancelled the Constellation program and will be capable of delivering double the payload of the Delta-IV Heavy. It’s going to need that extra power too as the next Orion mission is an uncrewed circumlunar mission, something NASA hasn’t done in almost 5 decades.
It’s great to see progress from NASA, especially when it comes to its human launch capabilities. The Shuttle was an iconic craft but it simply wasn’t the greatest way to get people into space. The Orion however is shaping up to be the craft that might finally pull NASA out of the rut it’s found itself in ever since the Apollo missions ended. We’re still a while off from seeing people make a return to space on the back of a NASA branded rocket but it’s now a matter of when, and not if, it will happen.