AutoMatters+: 20,000 MPH Vehicle Test Wildly Successful

On Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, an incredible new vehicle was tested at speeds up to 20,000 mph. The vehicle was NASA’s Orion spacecraft. On that date, at 4:05 a.m. PST, Orion EFT-1 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

This 4 1/2-hour exploration flight test was hugely important. It would not be a stretch to say that the future of manned exploration of space was at stake. As everyone watched nervously, all of Orion's most risky, mission-critical objectives were accomplished with perfection.

As San Diegans, we can be especially proud that the mission-critical windows on the Orion spacecraft are made by a local company: Rayotek Scientific Inc.

Those of us who were around in the early days of spaceflight remember the significance and excitement of mankind’s first landing on the moon. At that point in time, it seemed like we were on the verge of sustained manned exploration of space. "Star Trek" did not seem quite such a far-fetched possibility in the foreseeable future anymore. We were on our way — or so we thought.

For a variety of reasons in the intervening years between then and now, we seem to have been in some sort of cruel holding pattern. Manned exploration of space ended with the moon flights decades ago. Especially considering our giant leaps forward in technological capabilities in the years since then, so much more could have and should have happened, yet it did not.

Finally all of that is about to change, and in a very big way. With Orion’s successful flight, NASA has demonstrated that we are very nearly ready to send manned flights beyond the moon to explore our solar system, with the ultimate goal being a mission to Mars.

For me, this all started to unfold a couple of weeks ago. I received an invitation to “celebrate the first test flight of NASA’s Orion spacecraft” at “The Orion Splashdown Bash.” The idea was that we would all gather early on the morning of Thursday, Dec. 4 to watch the splashdown at the end of Orion’s mission, on the giant dome theater screen of San Diego’s Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. The event would also include a presentation by resident astronomer Dr. Lisa Will, followed by a question and answer session.

While that did not go exactly as planned because of the one-day delay in the launch, it did provide us with an excellent and unrushed opportunity to have our questions answered. We also were given a few cool mementoes, including a cardboard desk model of the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle that we could make for ourselves.

If anything, all of that made me even more excited and prepared than I had already been to get up early again on Friday to watch the rescheduled 4:05 a.m. (PST) launch, mission and splashdown live on NASA TV. Since I could not be there in person to take photos, I set up a camera in front of my computer’s high-resolution display monitor so that I could capture the event live, as it happened. It was the next best thing to being there.

From liftoff to splashdown (which was precisely on target in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 600 miles southwest of San Diego), and the recovery of the space capsule by personnel from the U.S. Navy, NASA and Lockheed Martin, the mission was a huge success. According to NASA, “the flight was designed to test many of Orion’s systems critical to safety before the spacecraft begins carrying crews to new destinations in the solar system, including an asteroid and on the journey to Mars. The test evaluated several of the riskiest elements of future missions, including key separation events, the spacecraft’s avionics, parachutes and the heatshield. During Orion’s re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, the spacecraft endured speeds of 20,000 mph and temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.”

This flight test “will provide critical data needed to improve Orion’s design and reduce risks to its future crews. The spacecraft will launch atop the agency’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket on future missions.”

If all goes well, NASA’s first manned mission to Mars may happen as soon as 2021. I am very much looking forward to celebrating that epic accomplishment. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed.

For information about the Orion program, visit www.nasa.gov/orion.

As always, please write to AutoMatters@gmail.com with your comments and suggestions.

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