Down at Cape Canaveral, work is underway to integrate NASA’s first orbit-ready Orion capsule with the workhorse Delta IV Heavy already positioned on Pad 37B. Launch is scheduled to occur just after sun-up on December 4. Orion’s brief flight, designated Experimental Flight Test 1, will send the craft beyond low earth orbit and loop it back for a searing, high-speed re-entry and splashdown.
An overall success with the mission will demonstrate to the public and to Congress that NASA is making significant progress toward the long-term HSF aspirations riding on the continued evolution and build out of the Space Launch System (SLS).
But this is a mission with many firsts.
We will see how Orion, her structure and systems, handle the dynamic boost phase and staging. Flight and navigational systems will be tested. The vessel’s amp’d up heat-shield (–already undergoing redesign to improve production quality) will be put to the test as Orion re-enters the atmosphere at 20,000 mph, the fastest, intentional re-entry of a U.S., human-rated spacecraft in generations. After the literal trial by fire, the craft’s high-tech, staged-release parachute system will need to deploy as planned for the vehicle to achieve a relatively smooth and stable landing along the Pacific Coast near Baja.
Lessons undoubtedly will be learned — this is an experimental test flight after all — but an intact launch and landing with no major failures will make the biggest, single leap ahead for the SLS since the first welds we executed on the Orion spacecraft. The hoped-for win for the program should provide the leverage necessary to protect program funding streams. If we are to see the initial exploration missions achieve launch given current timelines, NASA will need to avoid the introduction of new, major critical path items.
For those who see intrinsic and demonstrated value in publicly-financed Human Spaceflight and the returns on science and engineer that follow, December 4 is a very important date.