Science & Astronomy
3. December 2014

I seem to be writing a lot about spaceflight and space exploration here at the moment, but that’s mainly because there are so many exciting things happening at once right now. Tomorrow there’s going to be another premiere in spaceflight: NASA is going to launch its Orion Spacecraft for the first time in a test flight! So, why is this so exciting if everyone is already flying to space all the time? Mainly because it is the first human-rated spacecraft commissioned directly by NASA since the Space Shuttle and it has quite a history behind it that reaches back more than a decade.

Originally a part of the Constellation program that had been developed under the US Bush administration since 2004 and was subsequently cancelled in 2011 to be replaced by the Space Launch System and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the basic concept actually goes back all the way to the late 1960s. Launched on top of a multi-stage rocket, the spacecraft consists of a command and service module exactly like the Apollo missions, with only the command module returning to earth. The now completed Orion Crew Module is being built by Lockeed-Martin and the subject of Thursday’s test flight, while the actual Orion Service Module is still in development and will be built by ESA and Airbus on the basis of the ATV transporter, launching in 2017 or 2018 on the Exploration Mission 1 on a flight all the way around the Moon.

But first, the Exploration Flight Test 1 has to bring the Orion Spaceship into orbit, two times around the Earth and then land safely again. This is going to happen tomorrow, December 4th, from about 12:00 to 16:30 UTC – Jason Davis from the Planetary Society has compiled a detailed flight timeline derived from the press kit, which will be very handy to coordinate your day if you want to watch the launch on NASA TV or follow what’s happening around the web. Although this is still an early, uncrewed test flight without the complete spacecraft configuration on top of a Delta IV Heavy rocket supplied by United Launch Alliance instead of the still in development SLS, the importance of this first step should not be underestimated – everything has to start somewhere! Speaking of starting, or launching – NASA has replaced the famous countdown clock at the Kennedy Space Center with an updated version just in time for the Orion launch. This was mainly done because it was too hard to find replacement parts for the old clock, which had been in place since Apollo 12 – and the new clock actually looks very nice.

[Update 12/4: First it was a boat in the launch range, then the wind and finally a problem with some valves on the rocket that prevented today’s launch… but it appears that there will be another attempt tomorrow!]

[Update 12/5: Today’s launch was succcessful on the first attempt without any problems! Orion is currently in Earth orbit, but the mission is not over yet with the second boost for the higher orbit still coming. Unfortunately, there were some massive problems with the NASA TV online streams – the UStream channel went offline right before launch and NASA’s own stream only buffered like crazy, so many people weren’t actually able to watch the launch itself live. At the moment everything’s watchable again, though and there’s already a video of the launch on Youtube!]

[Update 12/5, 6pm: Splashdown! After a picture-perfect flight, the Orion spaceship has returned to earth and is currently floating peacefully in the Pacific near the Californian coast waiting for recovery! Videos from the flight will probably be up soon on the NASA Youtube channel. (Actually, the NASAKennedy channel has some videos this time, including the amazing splashdown!)]

Last, but not least, there is a little bit of irony in naming the spacecraft Orion, because 48 years ago, even before the first Apollo flight, the Spaceship Orion launched on German television screens! With a predecessor like that, the “new” Orion will surely be a great success, although most of the press just seem to be interested in the costs and even say the launch is overshadowed by the recent failure of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo – which, as usual, is absolute nonsense and a really irresponsible thing to say.

And in somewhat related news, the next comet investigator Hayabusa 2 has launched earlier today. It’s a cooperation between Japan, Germany and France and will arrive in four years at an asteroid to collect samples and even drop a small lander (which is the German-French contribution) on it, basically Rosetta-Philae style. But that’s all still four years and more in the future – stay tuned, more about this in 2018!

Write a Comment