Cheers rang out Friday at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena when a space capsule on which JPL personnel have been working for a decade successfully landed in the Pacific Ocean.
The Orion test flight capsule was launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral at 4:05 a.m. Pacific time and rose about 3,600 miles into an Earth orbit before it splashed down with the help of three parachutes almost 4 1/2 hours later, an estimated 600 miles southwest of San Diego.
Though the capsule was unmanned for the test, JPL and NASA officials said the Orion could in theory carry people to deep space some day, including a manned voyage to Mars projected for the early 2030s.
The craft will be brought to San Diego on Sunday aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage, which pulled the Orion from the ocean surface.
“Today’s flight test of Orion is a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space on our journey to Mars,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said.
“The teams did a tremendous job putting Orion through its paces in the real environment it will endure as we push the boundary of human exploration in the coming years.”
During the flight, Orion traveled twice through the Van Allen belt, where it experienced high periods of radiation.
Its orbit height of 3,600 miles was 15 times higher than the International Space Station.
Retired NASA research pilot Mark Pestana told KTLA-TV Channel 5 that lessons learned from the Orion mission will help lay groundwork for future deep space missions.
“Now, we’re building the capability to go beyond low-Earth orbit,” an upbeat Pestana said. “Right now, we have crews living on the space shuttle and we’d like to go explore the solar system. The Orion represents the capability to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit out for planetary exploration.”
Pestana — who has a bachelor’s degree from Loyola Marymount University and a master’s degree from USC — said Orion re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at around 20,000 mph, about 3,000 mph more than a space vehicle returning from low-Earth orbit, weathering temperatures approaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
“(A 20,000 mph entry speed) represents about 85 percent of the velocity returning from a lunar or planetary mission,” Pestana said.
Engineers will use data collected during the flight to improve Orion’s design, according to NASA. The flight tested Orion’s heat shield, avionics, parachutes, computers and key spacecraft separation events, exercising many of the systems critical to the safety of astronauts who will travel in Orion.
The last time a NASA vehicle that could carry people traveled so far into space was in 1972 with the last of its Apollo moon missions. Since then, NASA has only launched craft designed to carry crew just a few hundred miles from Earth.
The Anchorage will bring Orion back to Naval Base San Diego. The capsule will then be delivered back to Florida, according to NASA.