AeroTrans International

Dawn of Orion

- December 5, 2014

December 5, 2014 — CAPE CANAVERAL, FL

Dawn of Orion

December 5, 2014 — Cape Canaveral, FL

NASA's new Orion spacecraft launched towards a high point of 3,600 miles on an orbital test flight Friday, ushering in a new era of exploration that could one day put people on Mars.

The unmanned journey began with a sunrise liftoff witnessed by thousands of NASA guests. Two hours later, Orion zoomed toward the highest altitude traveled by a spacecraft built for humans since the Apollo moon program four decades ago.

NASA was thrilled with Orion's perfect performance as the most important part of the mission loomed: setting the spacecraft up for a scorchingly high-speed re-entry over the Pacific.

Orion's debut was designed to be brief — just 4½ hours from launch to splashdown, with two orbits of Earth. But for the first time in 42 years, NASA was sending a human-intended spacecraft farther than a couple hundred miles from Earth. The previous time was the Apollo 17 moon shot. And it's NASA's first new vehicle for space travel since the shuttle.

NASA aimed for a peak altitude of 3,600 miles on Orion's second lap around the planet — more than 14 times higher than the International Space Station — to create the momentum needed to re-enter the atmosphere at 20,000 mph with an outside temperature of 4,000 degrees. The capsule's heat shield is the largest of its kind ever made, and engineers were anxious to see how it holds up.

The spacecraft is rigged with 1,200 sensors to gauge everything from heat to vibration to radiation. At 11 feet tall with a 16.5-foot base, Orion is bigger than the old-time Apollo capsules and, obviously, more advanced.

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