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DENVER - After multiple delays Thursday, NASA's Orion spacecraft successfully launched for its first test flight at 5:05 a.m. MST Friday.
Workers and scientists at the Martin Marietta Waterton Canyon facility in Jefferson County were watching the launch closely.
Lockheed Martin space systems company, headquartered in Littleton, is the prime contractor for NASA's Orion program. The company is in charge of designing, building and testing Orion. Various components were built and tested at the Waterton facility. Most notably, the heat shield was designed and built in Colorado.
"For a lot of people it will be very emotional, after working on it for so long," said Darrel Williamson, Orion's engineering manager for Lockheed Martin. "It's not just the launch, but also watching the flight and having it land. This is the first time we're building a spacecraft we're going to recover."
Thursday morning's two-orbit, 4 1/2-hour flight is meant to test the capsule before manned flights, when Orion will carry as many as six astronauts into space. Live coverage begins on NASA's website and on NASA TV at 2:30 a.m. MST on Thursday, Dec. 4. A 2-hour, 39-minute launch window opens at 5:05 a.m. MST so the launch and recovery of the spacecraft can both take place in daylight.
The Orion Flight Control Team, located at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, is led by NASA Flight Director Mike Sarafin. He will be the responsible authority for the spacecraft between liftoff and the post-splashdown handover to the Orion recovery team. Based on input from his 14-member team and on the landing weather forecast, Sarafin will provide a go or no-go decision for Orion's launch to the Mission Management Team and provide recommendations on operations outside the flight rules as needed.
The Flight Control Team operates from the Blue Flight Control Room in Johnson's Mission Control Houston, a room previously used for International Space Station operations.
"We haven't had this feeling in a while, since the end of the shuttle program," said Sarafin. "Launching an American spacecraft from American soil and beginning something new, in this case exploring deep space."
NASA's use of the term "deep space" is arbitrary. In this case, it's a distance of 3,600 miles -- more than 14 times higher than the International Space Station, but far short of the 239,000 mile average distance from Earth to the moon.
NASA picked the 3,600-mile altitude to provide the necessary momentum for a 20,000-mph, 4,000-degree re-entry over the Pacific Ocean. Those temperatures -- about 80 percent as hot as Orion would experience returning from lunar orbit -- will provide the most challenging test currently possible.
The heat shield tiles on Orion are almost identical to the tiles that protected the bellies of the space shuttle orbiters as they returned from space. Made of a low-density, high-purity silica fiber made rigid by ceramic bonding, the tiles will protect the sides of Orion during re-entry. Protecting the spacecraft from temperatures of 4,000 degrees requires the largest, most advanced heat shield ever built. Even so, the heat shield is only 1.6 inches thick.
The 16.5-foot diameter heat shield is built around a titanium skeleton and carbon fiber skin that gives the shield its shape and provides structural support for the crew module during descent and splashdown.
A fiberglass-resin honeycombed structure fits over the skin, and each of its 320,000 cells are filled with a material called Avcoat. The material is designed to burn away, or ablate, as the material heats up, rather than transfer the heat back into the crew module. About 20 percent of the Avcoat will erode as Orion travels through Earth's atmosphere.
The flight control team at Mission Control will lose contact with Orion for approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds as a superheated plasma forms around the capsule, blocking signals in and out of the spacecraft.
The first two parachutes of the eight that will slow Orion for splashdown in the Pacific will deploy while Orion is traveling about 300 mph. Then three pilot parachutes will pull three massive main parachutes out after the drogue parachutes are released. The main parachutes, which together would cover almost an entire 100-yard football field, will slow the vehicle from about 100 mph to less than 20 mph for splashdown at 9:29 a.m. Mountain Time.
The re-entry test is what NASA calls the "trial by fire," possibly the most critical part of the entire test flight.
The flight test will also validate systems such as Orion's parachutes, avionics and attitude control, and demonstrate major separation events such as the launch abort system jettison and the service module fairing separation. All of these systems must perform flawlessly to guarantee safe, successful missions in the future.
Navy ships are stationed near the recovery zone, 600 miles off the Mexican Baja coast. They'll retrieve the capsule and bring it back to the U.S.
"It's an exciting time," Jeff Angermeier, ground support mission manager, said from Florida's Kennedy Space Center. "You can feel the buzz."
An estimated 26,000 guests were expected to jam Kennedy for the sunrise launch, as well as 650 journalists. The unmanned rocket will blast off from the adjoining Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The space center press site was packed Wednesday with out-of-town reporters not seen here since the last shuttle flight in 2011.
NASA's Orion program manager, Mark Geyer, puts the capsule's inaugural run on a par with the formative steps of Apollo and the space shuttles.
"In the sense that we are beginning a new mission, it is, I think, consistent with ... the beginning of shuttle, the beginning of Apollo," Geyer said. "It's a new mission for us, starting in the region of the moon and then beyond."
Noted NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr.: "For the first time in more than 40 years, this nation is going to launch a spacecraft intended to carry humans beyond low-Earth orbit. That's a big deal."
Unlike the first space shuttle flight in 1981 -- helmed by two pilots -- Orion will not carry astronauts before 2021.
NASA wants to test the most critical parts of the capsule on this $370 million shakedown flight, including the heat shield, parachutes and all the sections jettisoned during ascent and entry.
The capsule also will travel through the inner-most two high-radiation Van Allen belts surrounding Earth. Engineers want to gauge the effects on the on-board computers. The Apollo manned missions to the moon passed through the Van Allen belts without astronauts being severely affected, but components on modern computer chips are crammed so tightly that the odds of one getting hit by energetic charged particles are much greater than during the Apollo era with its rudimentary computers.
A Delta IV rocket is hoisting Orion this time around. For Orion's next flight, around 2018, the capsule will fly atop the giant launch vehicle still in development by NASA -- SLS, short for Space Launch System. Only after that will astronauts climb aboard.
NASA hopes to send an Orion crew to an asteroid corralled in lunar orbit in the 2020s and to Mars in the 2030s. The missions are dependent upon congressional funding.
Flying this one without humans on board took some of the edge off NASA's first-flight jitters.
Still fresh in everyone's minds is October's explosion moments after liftoff of a commercial rocket carrying supplies for the International Space Station. No one was on board that flight, either, and no one on the ground was hurt. For those who remember the early rocket mishaps of the NASA space program, it was an all too familiar site.
"It's important it's unmanned because we actually structured the test to fly the riskiest pieces of the flight," Geyer told reporters. "This is the time to do it, when it's unmanned, and so we intend to stress the systems and make sure they behave as we designed them."
Lockheed Martin Corp. is handling the test flight for NASA, much the way NASA has contracted out the development of two manned capsules meant for space station ferry trips.
The mission director for Thursday's flight, based at Kennedy, is Lockheed Martin's Bryan Austin, a former shuttle flight director.
Note: Wayne Harrison covered NASA's Apollo missions as a reporter in Texas. He was at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston for the historic Apollo 11 moon landing.