The clock is ticking down to a couple of very cool experimental flights in December.
The first is NASA’s Experimental Test Flight-1, which will throw the first, flight-ready Orion crew capsule into orbit. That mission is slated for this Thursday and appears ready to fly — barring a moderate probability of isolated showers and winds. A lot hangs on the success of EFT-1: beyond a smooth launch and orbital insertion, we need to see maintenance of the capsule’s structural integrity during flight, near-flawless avionics performance, a safe, high-speed re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere, full-deployment of parachutes and an on-target splashdown. Because of the relativity slow “cadence” of the Orion and Space Launch System development-effort (at least compared to Apollo/Saturn and Shuttle), if there is a major malfunction on this flight, we will see a serious confounding of the critical path to the first non-experimental flights late in this decade and in the 2020’s.
Liftoff is a couple minutes past 7AM ET Thursday. Don’t forget to tune in to NASA TV online or via cable TV.
The other big reveal this month, one that points in the direction of a major reworking of the economics of human spaceflight to low Earth orbit, is the launch of a SpaceX Falcon rocket on a resupply flight to the International Space Station. This will not be any routine Falcon flight. SpaceX will be pushing the envelope, after some testing, by endeavoring to retrieve and ultimately re-use the first stage structure and engines of the Falcon through a precision, soft-landing on an autonomous landing pad positioned in the Atlantic.
This is a bit like landing a plane on a rolling aircraft carrier EXCEPT this craft will travel 50 miles up into the atmosphere at supersonic speeds and then descend relatively slowly and vertically toward a less than stable bulls-eye on the vast ocean surface — without a pilot. And did I mention that it has grasshopper legs that must deploy at just the right moment? Kudos to Elon Musk, CEO and visioneer of SpaceX for thinking this big. If it all works — or comes close to working — we will be a major step closer to a drop in the cost to get humans and cargo into low Earth orbit. The Falcon flight is scheduled for mid-December.
It’s great to see this kind of innovation taking flight from NASA’s southernmost spaceport!