A Successful First Flight For NASA’s Orion Spacecraft

American spaceflight enters a new era

Orion launch
The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy Rocket lifts off with the Orion spacecraft for its first test flight NASA/Bill Ingalls

The new era for American space exploration has begun.

This Friday morning, the Orion spacecraft’s test flight put its computer systems through its paces: liftoff, a circuit around the planet, a second orbit that took it 3,604.2 miles above Earth, through the Van Allen radiation belt—a region of charged particles held in place by the planet’s magnetic field—and through 20,000 mile per hour re-entry that spiked temperatures on Orion’s heat shield up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to NBC NewsThe splashdown happened at 11:29 a.m. ET. 

The systems handled everything "by the book from start to finish," said launch commentator Mike Curie while waiting for crews to retrieve the floating spacecraft. 

Despite several delays during the original launch window, enthusiasm about the test flight’s sucesss is high. "I would describe it as the beginning of the Mars era," Charles Bolden, NASA’s administrator said on NASA TV,  NBC reports. People around the world (and some off the world) watched the excitement.

Delta IV Heavy rocket sped the spacecraft on its way with a liftoff at 7:05am ET. Orion entered its first orbit 17 minutes later, according to a NASA press statement. Here PBS News Hour covers the launch:

Watch: NASA launches Orion space capsule aboard Delta IV

NASA expects to learn from the data gathered during this first test flight. The next step is to build the first rocket intended to power future missions. The press statement explains that will be the "Space Launch System rocket, a heavy booster with enough power to send the next Orion to a distant retrograde orbit around the moon for Exploration Mission-1. Following that, astronauts are gearing up to fly Orion on the second SLS rocket on a mission that will return astronauts to deep space for the first time in more than 40 years."

That first crewed Orion flight should be sometime in 2021.

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