Textbook launch for NASA’s Orion spacecraft

Running a day late, a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket roared to life and vaulted into orbit Friday, boosting NASA’s first Orion deep space exploration craft into space for a long-awaited unmanned test of the vehicle the agency hopes will one day carry astronauts to an asteroid and, eventually, to Mars.

Coming nearly three-and-a-half years after the final space shuttle launch, the maiden flight of Orion marked a major milestone for NASA, the first test of a new U.S. spacecraft designed to carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit since the final Apollo moon mission more than four decades ago.

While NASA’s budget is constrained and flights to Mars are not expected before the mid-2030s (at the earliest), the launch Friday generated widespread interest and served as a major morale-booster for NASA and its contractor workforce.

“Its biggest significance is symbolic,” space historian John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told CBS News. “This is the first time a piece of hardware intended to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit is being tested or used, for 42 years, since Apollo 17.

“It’s a very small but real, tangible step towards eventually sending people out to the moon, beyond and eventually to Mars.”

Speaking from orbit Thursday, Barry “Butch” Wilmore, commander of the International Space Station, said the Orion mission was “a thrilling prospect when you think about actually exploring the solar system.

“Who knows where it will take us? Who knows where it will go?” he said of Orion. “We’ll find out as time goes forward. But this first step is a huge one on that road.”

The heavy-lift Delta 4’s three hydrogen-fueled main engines ignited and throttled up at 7:05 a.m. EST (GMT-5). Generating nearly 2 million pounds of thrust and a fiery torrent of exhaust, the Delta 4’s three RS-68 engines quickly pushed the 1.6-million-pound launcher and spacecraft away from Pad 37 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Making only its eighth flight, the Delta 4 “heavy,” the most powerful rocket in the current U.S. inventory, put on a thrilling sky show for thousands of space center workers, tourists and area residents as it arced away to the east over the Atlantic Ocean.

Four minutes after liftoff, two of the three common booster cores making up the Delta 4’s first stage shut down and fell away, followed a minute-and-a-half later by shutdown and separation of the remaining first-stage core booster at an altitude of about 90 miles.

The rocket’s hydrogen-fueled second-stage engine then took over, firing for another 11-and-a-half minutes to put Orion into an initial orbit with a high point around 550 miles and a low point of just 115 miles.

Along the way, three large support panels were jettisoned as planned from the Orion’s service module, followed a few moments later by jettison of a dummy launch abort tower and spacecraft fairing, exposing the capsule to the space environment.

A second 4:42-firing of the second stage RL10B-2 engine was planned at the end of the first orbit to raise the high point of the second orbit to 3,600 miles, higher than any spacecraft intended for piloted operations since the final Apollo moon mission.

Falling back to Earth, the Orion capsule was expected to slam into the atmosphere 75 miles above the Pacific Ocean southwest of San Diego at nearly 20,000 mph, subjecting its heat shield to peak temperatures of some 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

After slowing to a more sedate 300 mph, the spacecraft’s flight computer was programmed to jettison a protective cover over the top of the capsule, followed by two stabilizing drogue parachutes. If all goes well, three huge main parachutes will unfurl at an altitude of about 1.2 miles to slow the spacecraft to less than 20 mph before splashdown west of Baja California.

Navy recovery forces were stationed nearby to recover the capsule and its parachutes and to carry out an initial assessment of the vehicle’s condition. The spacecraft will be hauled back to San Diego and then trucked to the Kennedy Space Center for detailed analysis.

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