Splashdown! Orion completes successful maiden voyage

After orbiting the Earth twice and climbing 15 times higher than the orbit of the International Space Station, NASA's new spacecraft, Orion, today completed its maiden voyage and returned safely to Earth.

After lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:05 a.m. ET, the uncrewed Orion splashed down right on target in the Pacific Ocean, almost four and a half hours later. At mid-day, a recovery team made up of members of the U.S. Navy, NASA and Lockheed Martin was in the process of securing and retrieving the spacecraft.

"America has driven a golden spike as it crosses a bridge into the future," said a NASA announcer, moments after Orion made what he called a "bulls-eye" splashdown for America's newest spacecraft. "This was a perfect mission."

Today's mission was the first test flight for Orion, which is designed to be NASA's next deep-space vehicle. The space agency expects Orion to take space exploration beyond simply putting robotic rovers on Mars by taking humans to the Red Planet and bringing them home safely.

The flight appeared to go like clock work. After launch, the spacecraft successfully tested the motor for its new abort system, climbed into a first orbit that had it on the same level as the space station and then two hours into its trip, climbed much higher, reaching 3,600 miles above Earth.

Orion's journey included two passes through the Van Allen belts, an area around the planet known for its high radiation levels.

NASA briefly noted this afternoon that the radiation had no effect on the spacecraft's computers -- designed to be rugged in space -- or on its shielding. It wasn't immediately clear, however, whether any of the computers reset during the flight.

"Although this was an unmanned mission, we were all onboard Orion," Mike Sarafin, Orion flight director for NASA, said on NASA TV this afternoon. "Today was a great day for America."

This flight served as a testing ground for a variety of technology -- some old, some new -- onboard Orion.

In an interview Thursday, Matt Lemke, NASA's deputy manager for Orion's avionics, power and software team, noted that the spacecraft has the latest technology when it comes to its parachute system, heat shield and life-support systems. However, its computers, and specifically the processors running them, are far from state-of-the-art.

For Orion's flight computer, the space agency used a computer from Honeywell International Inc. originally built for Boeing's 787 jet airliner. The computers run IBM's PowerPC 750FX processors, which were first released in 2002.

NASA is sticking with the 12-year-old processors because they can function well even when being bombarded by high levels of radiation. That reliability, said Lemke, is far more important to a vehicle hurtling through space than using the most powerful computer chips.

To reduce the risk radiation may pose, Orion has three redundant computers onboard. Lemke noted that the chances of all three computers being knocked out, even momentarily, by radiation is one in 1,870,000 missions.

NASA has planned a second uncrewed test flight for Orion in 2018 and a crewed mission to fly around the moon in the 2020s. The space agency hopes to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.


Sharon Gaudin

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