Update: Orion completes successful maiden voyage

Orion lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air

The Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Orion spacecraft lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida December 5, 2014. 

Credit: Reuters/Mike Brown

NASA says computers, shields performed well despite flying through high radiation

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.

Orion after splashdown in the Pacific Ocean REUTERS/NASA

The Orion spacecraft floats in the Pacific Ocean after splashdown today in this NASA handout image from video. Orion, the spaceship designed to one day fly astronauts to Mars made a near-bullseye splashdown in the Pacific. 

The flight appeared to go like clock work.

“It’s hard to have a better day than today,” said Mark Geyer, program manager for the  Orion project, during a news conference this afternoon. “Part of the reason it’s exciting is it’s a difficult mission. It’s a tough environment to fly through, but it seems that Orion performed nearly flawlessly.”

Geyer also noted that a human-rated spacecraft hasn’t traveled this far since 1972.

“It was Dec. 7, 1972 to be exact, so it was nearly 42 years ago with the Apollo mission,” he said. “And here we are again with the United States leading exploration out into the solar system.”

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.

NASA scientists said they are eagerly waiting to get their hands on the data recorded by the 1,200 sensors onboard Orion so they can analyze exactly how the different parts of the spacecraft functioned throughout its launch, flight and splashdown.

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 afternoonthat the radiation did force some video processing units to briefly reset, but had no effect on the spacecraft's computers -- designed to be rugged in space -- or on its shielding.

"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.

NASA astronaut Rex Walheim, who flew three space shuttle missions, said he’s eagerly awaiting the time when humans fly on Orion.

“You would be hard pressed to find a past, present or future astronaut who wouldn’t love to fly on Orion,” he said. “This is what we live for.”

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