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NASA's Orion Test Flight: Success

Orion waits on the pad for a 'go' for launch. Photo: NASA

The first unmanned test mission of NASA’s new deep space capsule Orion was a success.

Orion safely returned to Earth after a 4 hour and 24 minute mission that sent the craft to a peak altitude of 3,600 miles - higher than any other vessel designed for human cargo since Apollo 17. Orion's chutes performed as planned and slowed the craft down from 20,000 mph to 20 mph before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. Orion was stable and upright.

Engineers will examine Orion's mission-critical systems and how they fared outside of low earth orbit. This test mission is crucial in moving the project forward to destinations like the Moon, Mars and asteroids.

Final update at 11:36 am. Read below for play-by-play updates during the mission. 90.7's Amy Green and Brendan Byrne report later this afternoon on 90.7FM and WMFE.org. 

Update 11:10am: Orion is on target for a splashdown in Pacific Ocean. Around 9-minutes until Orion begins re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, which will be a critical test for the heat shield and parachute systems.

Update 10:31am: The Orion capsule has separated from the Delta IV. Control says craft is 'very stable.' Orion is beginning its return to Earth and is starting to accelerate. Vessel will reach a top speed of around 20,000 mph.

Update 10:07am: Orion reached peak altitude at around 3,600 statute miles. This will set up a high-speed re-entry that will test the capabilities of the heat shield. Engineers are estimating a max of 8.2 gs on return, well within the mission parameters for this flight. Recovery crews have an unmanned plane in the area to record video of the capsule's return. Engineers predict a 'bulls-eye' splashdown at around 11:30 am EST.

[caption id="attachment_43721" align="aligncenter" width="250"] View from Orion as capsule reaches peak-orbit. Photo: NASA TV[/caption]

Update 9:06am: The second stage burn that will take Orion outside of low-earth orbit was successful. The 4-minute burn lasted a little more than 4 minutes, and engineers call the burn "perfect." Orion will climb to a peak altitude of 3,600 miles in the next hour. Vessel will pass Van Allen radiation belt shortly and will test impact of radiation on electronics and avionics on the craft.

Update 8:13am: After a little more than an hour into the mission, Lockheed Program Manager happy with launch and critical separation events in first hour of today's test flight. Next step is engine burn that will take Orion to highest orbit and set up re-entry. While out of Low Earth Orbit, Orion will pass through Van Allen Radiation Belt. Engineers will be watching the performance of technical systems as it passes through. A critical test of the performance of the heat shield as it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere will follow.

Update 7:30am: Amy Green reports from Kennedy Space Center about the Orion launch today.

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Update 7:12am: So far so good for Orion mission. Good separation of boosters and launch abort system at 7-minute mark.

Update 7:05am: Orion liftoff.

Update 6:55am: NASA Orion ‘go’ for launch after most recent systems check. Weather remains ‘green’ for launch. Orion is switching to internal power in preparation for launch.

Update 6:38am: At Space View Park in Titusville, spectators have been gathering since early morning for a chance to see the rocket.
Ozzie Osband says the crowd isn’t quite as big as yesterday, when about 200 people showed up.
He tells 90.7’s Matthew Peddie spectators are excited to watch a historic launch. “The exciting part is that we are preparing- it’s the tip of the iceberg almost literally- to see the way we go into deep space in the future. We need to test these systems, and that’s what this flight is about. All the computer models say this going to work just fine. But, there comes a point when you just have to send it up and see how it does.”

[audio mp3="http://wmfeimages.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Ozzie_Osband_Space_View_Park.mp3"][/audio]

Update 6:29am: Amy Green is at Kennedy Space Center with an update on launch preparations. NASA’s George Diller says there’s a 60% chance of a weather issue for today’s launch. NASA has a two-and-a-half hour window to launch this morning, starting at 7:05am.

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The first unmanned test mission of NASA’s new deep space capsule Orion was scrubbed Thursday because of problems with a fuel valve in the Delta Four Heavy rocket.

NASA will try again Friday when the launch window re-opens at 7:05 am EST.

Orion is NASA’s first new spacecraft designed for astronauts since the shuttle. NASA bills this unmanned mission as humankind’s first step toward Mars.

Amy Green, Matthew Peddie, Brendan Byrne and Nicole Creston contributed to this report. 

Brendan Byrne is Central Florida Public Media's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing the organization's internship program. Byrne also hosts Central Florida Public Media's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration, and the weekly news roundup podcast "The Wrap."