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One big splash for mankind

December 5, 2014

Orion has made splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. The future mission-to-Mars spacecraft has wrapped up a flawless unmanned debut test flight around the Earth.

Start Orion 05.12.2014
Image: Reuters/S. Audette

Orion splashed down in the Pacific after reaching its zenith of 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometers).

The future destination for the spacecraft capable of flying farther and faster than any other which has carried humans: Mars.

A day later than planned, the capsule had blasted off at 7:05 a.m. local time (1205 UTC) on Friday aboard a Delta 4 heavy rocket, the biggest in the US fleet, from the Kennedy Space Center at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Three hours later, it reached a peak altitude of 3,604 miles above the Earth, a prelude to the most challenging part of the flight, a 20,000-mile-per-hour (32,000 kph) dive back into the atmosphere.

"There's your new spacecraft, America," mission control commentator Rob Navias said as Orion descended, calling the flight "picture-perfect" and "a significant milestone for America's space program."

The flight tested Orion's heat-shield system and parachute splashdown. Aside from Mars, projected missions include landings on the moon or an asteroid.

Out-of-this-world budget

For the first time since ending the Apollo program in 1972, the US has launched a spacecraft to carry astronauts to the moon - and beyond. NASA hadn't launched a passenger mission since the last US space shuttle transported a group of astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2011.

The US pays Russia to carry astronauts to the ISS - $71 million (57.5 million euros) per trip. The European Space Agency has ceased cargo operations to the ISS, choosing instead to contract out private US carriers or Russia.

The Orion program's eight years have cost $9.1 billion so far, with the total projected to reach $19-22 billion by 2021, when it is scheduled to carry two astronauts on a test flight. It cost NASA about $375 million on Friday to verify that Orion's 16.5-foot (5-meter) diameter heat shield, parachutes, avionics and other equipment would work as designed prior to astronauts flying aboard. The next test flight, scheduled for about four years from now, will also be unmanned.

Orion Computer Simulation
Computers simulate what scientists say Orion will eventually doImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo/NASA

Orion has made good on initial investments, surviving its plunge through the atmosphere, heating up to 4,000 degree Fahrenheit (2,200C) - twice as hot as molten lava - and experiencing gravitational forces eight times stronger than Earth's.

A total of 11 parachutes deployed to slow Orion's descent, including three gigantic main chutes, guided the spaceship to a 20mph splashdown 630 miles southwest of San Diego, California, at 11:29 a.m. Florida time.

In a week of outer space milestones, Germany sent its MASCOT lander out beyond the stratosphere, where scientists hope it will conduct essential research on an asteroid.

mkg/lw (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)