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5 Years Ago: Orion Flies its First Mission

America’s spacecraft capable of carrying humans deep into space made its first foray beyond Earth on Dec. 5, 2014. Orion is the vehicle NASA is building to take American astronauts back to the Moon and eventually beyond and is a key part of the agency’s Artemis Program. Orion’s first mission, called Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), in many ways recalled the November 1967 Apollo 4 mission, the first all-up test flight of that program. For this first test flight, Orion used a Delta-IV Heavy booster, at the time the most powerful operational rocket. The 4.5-hour mission demonstrated Orion’s space-worthiness, tested the spacecraft’s heat shield during reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, and proved the capsule’s recovery systems. Although EFT-1 didn’t include a crew, the Orion capsule flew higher and faster than any spacecraft meant to carry humans in more than 40 years. The test flight carried a high-fidelity crew module and a mock service module that remained attached to the rocket’s upper stage.

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Left: Launch of Orion on the EFT-1 mission. Right: Orion EFT-1 mission patch.

At 7:05 AM EST on Dec 5, 2014, the three-core first stage of the Delta-IV Heavy rocket ignited, lifting the Orion spacecraft off from Launch Complex 37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) to begin the EFT-1 mission. Three minutes and fifty-eight seconds after liftoff, the two side boosters separated as the center core continued firing for another 93 seconds. The second stage ignited thirteen seconds after separation to begin the first of three planned burns. During this first burn, the Service Module’s protective fairing separated, followed by the Launch Abort System. Lasting about 11 and a half minutes, this first burn of the second stage placed the spacecraft into a preliminary 115-by-552-mile parking orbit. After completing one revolution around the Earth, during which time controllers in Mission Control in Houston, led by Flight Director Michael L. Sarafin, verified the functioning of the spacecraft’s systems, the second stage ignited a second time, firing for 4 minutes and 42 seconds to raise Orion’s apogee or high point above the Earth to 3,600 miles. During the coast to apogee, Orion remained attached to the second stage and completed its first crossing through the inner Van Allen radiation belt. 

Mark Geyer in flight control center
As Orion reaches an apogee of 3600 miles, Mark Geyer, Orion program
manager, watches the view from Orion’s windows.
Credits: NASA / Radislav Sinyak

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Left: Diagram of the Orion EFT-1 rocket and spacecraft and its orbital trajectory.
Right: Mission Control during the EFT-1 mission.

Three hours and five minutes after launch, Orion reached its apogee and began its descent back toward Earth, separating from the second stage about 18 minutes later. The second stage conducted a one-minute disposal burn to ensure it didn’t interfere with the spacecraft’s trajectory. During the passage back through the Van Allen belt, Orion fired its thrusters for 10 seconds to adjust its course for reentry. At an altitude of 400,000 feet, the spacecraft encountered the first tendrils of the Earth’s atmosphere at a point called Entry Interface, traveling at 20,000 miles per hour (mph). A buildup of ionized gases caused by the reentry heating resulted in a communications blackout with Orion for about two and a half minutes. The spacecraft experienced maximum heating of about 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, proving the worthiness of the heat shield. After release of Orion’s forward bay cover, two drogue parachutes deployed to slow and stabilize the spacecraft. Next followed deployment of the three main parachutes that slowed the spacecraft to 20 mph. Splashdown occurred 4 hours and 24 minutes after launch about 600 miles southwest of San Diego, California. A video of the Orion EFT-1 mission can be viewed here.

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Left: View of Earth taken by a remote camera aboard Orion during the EFT-1 mission.
Middle: The Orion capsule under its three main parachutes moments before splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Right: Bolden (left) and Gerstenmaier monitor Orion’s splashdown from a control room at CCAFS.

Standing by to recover the Orion capsule, U.S. Navy Divers assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11 and Fleet Combat Camera Pacific and crewmembers from amphibious transport dock USS Anchorage (LPD-23) stepped into action, first placing a flotation collar around the spacecraft. After securing a tow line to the capsule, the sailors towed it aboard the amphibious well deck of Anchorage, which set sail for Naval Base San Diego arriving there on Dec 8. Engineers from NASA and Lockheed Martin conducted a preliminary inspection of the spacecraft during the cruise to San Diego and found that it survived its trip into space in excellent condition.

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Left: US Navy divers approach the Orion capsule during recovery operations.
Right: Personnel guide Orion into the well deck of USS
Credits: US Navy.

The Orion EFT-1 mission met all its objectives and received many accolades. “Today was a great day for America,” said Flight Director Sarafin from his console at Mission Control in Houston. “It is hard to have a better day than today,” said Mark S. Geyer, Orion program manager. “We’re already working on the next capsule,” said W. Michael “Mike” Hawes, Lockheed Martin’s Orion program manager, adding, “We’ll learn a tremendous amount from what we did today.” NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William H. Gerstenmaier praised all personnel involved with the EFT-1 mission, “What a tremendous team effort.” NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden summarized his thoughts about the mission, “Today’s flight test of Orion is a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space.”

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Left: Bolden (in red tie) inspecting Orion EFT-1 capsule at KSC.
Right: EFT-1 capsule on display at KSC Visitors Center.

After its arrival at Naval Base San Diego, workers placed the Orion capsule aboard a truck that delivered it to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Dec. 18. After engineers conducted a thorough inspection of the spacecraft at KSC, workers trucked it to the Lockheed Martin facility in Littleton, Colorado, where it arrived on Sep. 1, 2015. Engineers there completed final inspections and decontamination of the vehicle. The capsule is on display at the KSC Visitors Center.

The next time an Orion spacecraft flies in space, during the Artemis I mission, the Space Launch System (SLS) will carry it into orbit after launch from Kennedy’s Launch Complex 39B. The first in a series of increasingly complex missions, Artemis I will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the Moon and beyond. The uncrewed Orion spacecraft will spend approximately three weeks in space, including six days in a retrograde orbit around the Moon. Engineers at Kennedy mated the Artemis I crew module with its service module in July 2019 and shipped it to NASA Glenn Research Center’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio for vacuum testing beginning in December 2019.

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Left: Artemis I mission patch.
Right: Completed Artemis I spacecraft about to undergo vacuum chamber testing at Plum Brook Station.