Orion's first flight test is expected to be one for the books: the first mission since Apollo to carry a spacecraft built for humans to deep space, the first time NASA's next-generation spacecraft is tested against the challenges of space, and the first operational test of a heat shield strong enough to protect against 4,000-degree temperatures.
From the launch on a gigantic United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy on Dec. 4 from Florida to the expected splashdown under billowing parachutes, the mission will test many of the riskiest events Orion will see when it sends astronauts to an asteroid and onward toward Mars in the future.
So even though Orion is poised for a mere 4 1/2-hour, two-orbit mission without anyone on board, the cone-shaped craft needs to perform its roster of tasks well, including an all-important descent through Earth's atmosphere and splashdown.
"Really, we're going to test the riskiest parts of the mission," said Mark Geyer, program manager of Orion. "Ascent, entry and things like fairing separations, Launch Abort System jettison, the parachutes plus the navigation and guidance – all those things are going to be tested. Plus we’ll fly into deep space and test the radiation effects on those systems."
Recall that many companies are part of the Orion project, as Wire Rope Exchange featured in the July/August 2012 issue.