Orion Test Flight Set for Thursday

NASA's Orion spacecraft passes into Space Launch Complex-37 SLC-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to complete its move from the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. (Credit:  NASA/Kim Shiflett)
NASA’s Orion spacecraft passes into Space Launch Complex-37 SLC-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to complete its move from the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Credit:
NASA/Kim Shiflett)



Orion is NASA’s new spacecraft built to carry humans, designed to allow us to journey to destinations never before visited by humans, including an asteroid and Mars. On this uncrewed test flight, Exploration Flight Test-1, Orion will test systems critical to crew safety as it travels farther into space than any spacecraft built for humans has traveled in more than 40 years.

During the 4.5-hour flight, Orion will orbit Earth twice, covering more than 60,000 miles (96,600 kilometers) and reaching an altitude of 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometers) on the second orbit. (The International Space Station orbits Earth at an altitude of approximately 260 miles, or 420 kilometers.) That altitude will allow the spacecraft to return through the atmosphere at a speed of 20,000 mph (32,000 kph), which will generate temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,200 degrees Celsius) on Orion’s heat shield. Those temperatures – about 80 percent as hot as Orion would experience returning from lunar orbit – will provide the most challenging test currently possible.

The flight test will also validate systems such as Orion’s parachutes, avionics and attitude control, and demonstrate major separation events such as the launch abort system jettison and the service module fairing separation. All of these systems must perform flawlessly to guarantee safe, successful missions in the future. Although they have been tested extensively on the ground, the space environment cannot be replicated completely on Earth, and Exploration Flight Test-1 will provide critical data that will enable engineers to improve Orion’s design and reduce risk for the astronauts it will carry as NASA continues to move forward on its human journey to Mars.

Although Orion is a NASA program, Exploration Flight Test-1 is managed and led by Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin and launch on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket.

Schedule & NASA TV Coverage

Mission: Orion Flight Test
Launch Date: Dec. 4, 2014
Launch Time: 7:05 a.m. EST
Launch Window: 2 hours, 39 minutes
Launch Site: Space Launch Complex 37, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
Splashdown (if launched at start of window): 11:29 a.m. EST

NASA TV launch commentary of the flight, designated Exploration Flight Test-1, begins at 4:30 a.m. EST and will continue through splashdown in the Pacific Ocean approximately 600 miles southwest of San Diego.


For its first flight, Orion will launch into space on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, the largest rocket currently available until NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is completed. The Delta IV Heavy is powerful enough to boost Orion 3,600 miles in altitude above Earth – high enough to require the spacecraft to return to Earth at speeds that will result in its heat shield experiencing temperatures approximately 80 percent of what the vehicle would endure on a return from lunar orbit.



Atop the Delta IV Heavy, it will take Orion 17 minutes to reach orbit. During that time, several portions of both the rocket and Orion will be jettisoned.

The first things to go are the rocket’s port and starboard liquid-fueled rocket boosters, which are jettisoned about four minutes after launch. The center booster stays with the vehicle for another minute and a half before it, too, has fulfilled its purpose and separates from the second stage of the rocket and the Orion spacecraft.

Six minutes into the flight, Orion jettisons the three service module fairing panels that protect the service module and provide structural support for the crew module and launch abort system during the heaviest loads of launch and ascent. The launch abort system itself follows seconds later.

The second stage of the Delta IV Heavy will provide all of the attitude control and propulsion for Orion while it remains with the vehicle. Its engine cuts off for the first time when Orion reaches its initial 115- by 552-mile (185- by 888-kilometer) orbit, 17 minutes after launch. It ignites again as the first of Orion’s two orbits ends, pushing the spacecraft to its peak altitude. After firing for 4 minutes and 45 seconds, Orion’s orbit will change from roughly circular to extremely oval, with an apogee – or high point – of 3,609 miles (5,808 kilometers) and a perigee that would actually dip below Earth surface, if the flight weren’t ending at splashdown.

Orion will reach that peak altitude three hours into the flight. At 3,600 miles in altitude, Earth should fill 60 percent of the field of view through Orion’s window.

At that point, the rocket’s second stage will perform its final task as part of Orion’s flight test, by maneuvering the spacecraft into position for separation. At 3 hours and 23 minutes, the Orion crew module will separate from both the Delta IV second stage and the Orion service module. The second stage, with the service module still attached, will fire its engines one more time to drop itself into Earth’s atmosphere and burn up.


The Orion crew module will continue on the flight by itself, providing its own attitude control and propulsion. It will go from peak altitude to splashdown in just an hour and a half. Just before completing its fourth hour of flight, Orion will use its reaction control system for 10 seconds to perform its re-entry demonstration burn. About 15 minutes later, the spacecraft will begin experiencing Earth’s atmosphere again, at an altitude of 400,000 feet (122,000 meters).

Orion will be traveling just under 20,000 mph (32,000 kph) at this time. It will take it only 10 minutes from that point to reach the Pacific Ocean for splashdown. By comparison, the space shuttles took 40 minutes to descend for landing.

The hottest temperatures Orion’s heat shield will see occur less than 10 minutes before landing, 4 hours and 15 minutes into the flight. As its heat shield is put to the test, Earth’s atmosphere will begin to slow the spacecraft down. Within five minutes, it will reach a speed of about 300 mph (480 kph) and have passed the extreme heating phase of the flight. This will allow the forward bay cover, which protects the capsule and its parachutes, to jettison, making way for the first two of the eight parachutes that further slow Orion’s descent.

Orion’s two drogue parachutes deploy first, at 22,000 feet (6,700 meters), and within a minute slow Orion to about 100 mph (160 kph) before being released. They are followed by three pilot parachutes that pull out the three massive main parachutes when Orion is still 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) above the Pacific Ocean. They finish the job and lower Orion to the ocean’s surface at less than 17 mph (27 kph).

Recovery Operations

Before Orion launches on its flight test from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the integrated team will embark aboard two ships, the U.S. Navy’s amphibious ship, the USS Anchorage, and the Navy’s salvage ship, the USNS Salvor, on the West Coast to prepare for Orion’s recovery. The team is made up of U.S. Navy amphibious specialists, engineers and technicians from NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) program at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Lockheed Martin Space Operations.

While the team waits for Orion to take flight, it will launch weather balloons from the deck of the Anchorage and monitor sea conditions. Before Orion’s splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, helicopters will take off from the Anchorage’s deck and fly out to help locate Orion as it makes its descent toward the ocean. After Orion’s splashdown, the team will recover the crew module and attempt to recover hardware that was jettisoned, including the forward bay cover and parachutes.

Minutes after Orion splashes down, the crew module up-righting system will inflate to help rotate the spacecraft into a heads-up position, if needed.

U.S. Navy divers in Zodiac boats will check for any hazards around Orion. Then they will attach a sea anchor, load-distributing collar and tether lines to the crew module, and work to guide it to the ship’s well deck.

The crew module will be winched into the flooded well deck of the USS Anchorage and placed on rubber shock absorbers. Water will be drained from the well deck, leaving Orion secure and dry. Once the ship
starts the journey back to shore and reaches calm waters, the crew module then will be placed into its recovery cradle and readied for offloading.

The USNS Salvor and rigid-hull inflatable boats will be used to secure and recover Orion’s forward bay cover and parachutes. The Salvor’s cranes will be used to lift the forward bay cover and parachutes onto the ship deck. The crew module and jettisoned hardware will be transported from the landing site to a pier at the U.S. Naval Base San Diego. After the crew module is secured in the recovery transportation fixture, nicknamed the Armadillo, the Orion crew module and hardware will be transported by truck to Kennedy, where the crew module will be prepared for use in Orion’s Ascent Abort-2 test.

The team also is prepared to use an alternative crew module recovery method in case Orion cannot be recovered using the USS Anchorage’s well deck. At sea, a sling would be placed around Orion, and the stationary crane on the USNS Salvor would be used to lift the crew module up and onto the deck where it will be secured. In case of very turbulent sea conditions, the USNS Salvor could tow Orion along until calmer seas are reached, and it could be recovered.

During future crewed Orion exploration missions propelled by NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, the recovery procedures will be adjusted to allow for extraction of the crew members. NASA astronauts will remain inside Orion after splashdown and be removed once the craft is secured inside the well deck of the Navy ship. There, a platform will be moved into place after the water has drained from the deck, allowing the astronauts to climb out. They will undergo a thorough medical evaluation on the ship.

Several of the unique pieces of Orion recovery hardware were designed and developed by NASA and Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians at Kennedy. Lockheed Martin designed the cradle Orion
will sit on inside the well deck. It will be used to secure Orion in the recovery ship and move it out of the ship after returning to port.

Building on 50 years of experience in spacecraft recovery operations, NASA’s GSDO Program at Kennedy is helping the agency prepare for future human deep space exploration, and will play a key role in Orion recovery operations.

During NASA’s Apollo Program, Launch Services Program rocket launches and all 135 space shuttle launches, NASA’s expertise included deploying and leading complex integrated teams at off-site locations throughout the world, working hand-in-hand with military personnel (both foreign and domestic), developing and coordinating search and rescue efforts with the Department of Defense, and creating and implementing a recovery operations concept that is compatible with the unique spacecraft, payload hazards and requirements.