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After a day's delay caused by a wayward boat, bad weather, and some technical problems, NASA's next generation spacecraft Orion, blasted off to space from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 7.05 EST on Friday, December 5th. Perched atop a Delta 4 heavy rocket, it soared through the Earth's atmosphere and disappeared into space.
Called Exploration Flight Test -1 (EFT-1), the inaugural mission was designed to test Orion's heat shield, avionics and other key systems, to prepare for future flights that will transport astronauts to nearby asteroids and then eventually, to Mars. The unmanned spacecraft was filled with memorabilia that included pieces of moon dust, a crew patch worn by Sally Ride, the first American astronaut in space, as well as a Captain James Kirk doll owned by "Star Trek" actor, William Shatner.
Also aboard was a microchip that held the names of over a million space buffs and Cookie Monster's cookie, Ernie’s rubber ducky, Slimey the Worm and Grover’s cape. Sent to promote the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and teach students about the importance of human spaceflight, the items will take prized spots on Sesame Street sets, following their historic trip.
Within 17 minutes of launch, the researchers were able to report their first victory - Orion had successfully entered the right orbit. However, the true test was yet to come - surviving the Van Allen radiation belt! Located 3,600 miles above the surface of the Earth (14 times higher than the International Space Station), enduring this layer of energetic particles that are held in place by the Earth's magnetic field was crucial if the spacecraft is ever going to transport men to Mars. Orion passed the test with flying colors! Not only did the capsule remain intact, all the onboard computers survived the impact of the intense radiation as well.
Four and a half hours later, Orion zoomed back to Earth at 20,000 miles per hour and landed in the Pacific Ocean, 270 miles off Mexico's Baja Peninsula - just a mile away from its projected rendezvous point. The historic spacecraft was promptly picked up by the awaiting Navy ships and transported to San Diego, California. It will now be loaded on to a truck and returned to the eagerly awaiting astronauts in Florida.
Once it arrives, the experts will examine the data collected by the 1,200 sensors that were placed inside and out of the crew module. This will allow them get a detailed read of Orion's voyage and enable them to make necessary changes so that successive models even better. As for the original Orion? It will be retrofitted for a 2017 test of the spacecraft's launch-abort system, which is designed to get astronauts out of danger in the event of a launch emergency.
If all goes according to plan, a second Orion will make its way to space in 2018. Launched aboard the SLS mega rocket, NASA's most powerful rocket yet, it will be jettisoned on a week-long mission around the moon. While unmanned, it is this test that will set the stage for Orion's ultimate voyages - transporting four astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid that has been dragged into the lunar orbit by a robotic probe some time in the 2020's and then finally, the Red Planet in 2030's! Watch out Mars, here we come!
Resources: Space.com, news.yahoo.com, NASA.gov