An unmanned test flight of NASA’s new Orion spacecraft was successful this morning, flying higher than any human-rated space vehicle since the 1960’s.
Orion launched at 7:05 Friday morning from Cape Canaveral air station aboard an enormous Delta IV Heavy rocket. The capsule and its attached service module reached an altitude of 3,604 miles, over ten times the height of the International Space Station.
The flight tested Orion’s systems for an eventual crewed flight, and also verified that it could successfully re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at speeds it would encounter when returning from deep space missions. Today’s re-entry had Orion slamming into the atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour – approximately 3,000 miles per hour faster than the Space Shuttle.
Orion passed through the Van Allen radiation belt twice during the flight, with internal sensors collecting data on the levels of radiation human crews could expect to receive during a mission to the moon, an asteroid, or even Mars.
NASA still has a long way to go before humans are taking flight on the new spacecraft. The space agency’s biggest rocket ever, the Space Launch System, is still in development and slated to take an unmanned test flight of its own in 2018 with Orion attached. Crewed flights won’t be until at least 2021. Where they plan to go first is still being determined (and the subject of much debate), but the ultimate plan is to send a crew to Mars.
But in the interim Boeing and SpaceX are developing low earth orbit vehicles designed to shuttle American astronauts to the space station. Those manned test flights will be taking place in the next two to three years.