Engineers make final preparations for Orion launch

CBS News

Engineers made final preparations Wednesday for the maiden launch of NASA's new Orion deep space exploration craft early Thursday, a long-awaited unmanned test flight to make sure the capsule's heat shield, pressure hull, electronic gear and parachute systems can withstand the space environment and the rigors of high-speed, high-temperature re-entries.

With forecasters predicting a 70 percent chance of good weather, a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket was primed for liftoff from complex 37 at the Cape Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:05 a.m. EST (GMT-5), the opening of a two-hour 39-minute window.

The Delta 4, generating some 2 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, is the most powerful rocket in the current U.S. inventory. If all goes well, it will propel the Orion capsule into an elliptical orbit with a high point of 3,600 miles, setting up a 20,000-mph re-entry that will subject the craft's heat shield to a blistering 4,000 degrees.

A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket is set for launch Thursday from complex 37 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a flight to boost NASA's first Orion deep space exploration vehicle into orbit. (Credit: NASA)

Assuming an on-time launch, the four-and-a-half-hour flight will end around 11:28 a.m. with a dramatic splashdown off the coast of Baja California. Forecasters said conditions at sea were expected to be favorable for Orion's recovery.

Weather officer Kathy Winters said the Florida launch forecast called for scattered clouds at 3,000 feet, a broken deck at 25,000 feet, light winds and a chance for isolated showers in the area. Overall, she said "things are starting to look real promising for tomorrow." The forecast calls for a 60 percent chance of acceptable weather Friday.

"On the vehicle side, everything is extremely clean," said Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion program manager. "We're go, we're ready to go."

The launching will mark the first flight of a new spacecraft designed to carry humans beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo moonships flew more than 40 years ago.

Legendary Apollo 11 flight director Gene Kranz, whose character famously said "failure is not an option" in the movie "Apollo 13," was expected to be on hand in mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to share his expertise with the Orion team.

Milt Heflin, who participated in eight Apollo splashdowns before becoming a space shuttle flight director and then a senior manager at JSC, will serve the same role aboard a Navy recovery ship stationed near the landing zone.

"We haven't had this feeling in a while, since the end of the shuttle program, launching an American spacecraft from American soil and beginning something new, in this case exploring deep space," said Orion Flight Director Mike Serafin. "It's a new mission and there are some things I'm sure we're going to learn tomorrow from this unmanned flight test that will enable us to fly humans into deep space."

Reflecting the feelings of many at NASA who have looked forward to resuming deep space exploration after a long hiatus, Serafin said "it's a very, very exciting time to be here."

"The team in mission control is ready, the ground systems are ready, the spacecraft and the launch vehicle are ready, and it's feeling like it's time to go fly," he said.

The Orion capsule originally was intended to carry astronauts to and from the moon as part of the Bush administration's post-shuttle Constellation program, which was aimed at establishing a sustained presence on the moon as a stepping stone to eventual flights to Mars.

The Obama administration cancelled the Constellation program after concluding it was not sustainable. Instead, the administration adopted a "flexible path" architecture that bypassed the moon in favor of an asteroid sample retrieval mission to perfect the hardware and techniques needed for Mars missions in the 2030s.

NASA is developing a new mega rocket known as the Space Launch System, or SLS, to boost Orion capsules and habitation modules on voyages into deep space. The SLS will debut in 2018, lofting another Orion capsule on a looping unmanned flight around the moon. The first piloted mission using the SLS is targeted for 2021.

In the interim, NASA decided to mount an initial test flight -- Exploration Flight Test 1 -- using the Delta 4 to collect engineering data on heat shield performance, the effects of space radiation beyond the protective Van Allen belts and to test the complex 11-parachute braking system needed to slow an Orion down during re-entry.

For EFT-1, the Delta 4 will boost the heavily instrumented Orion spacecraft into an initial orbit with a low point of 115 miles and a high point around 550 miles. After circling the globe once, the rocket's upper stage will fire a second time to raise the high point of the second orbit to around 3,600 miles.

Falling back toward Earth, the Orion capsule will quickly accelerate under the tug of the planet's gravity, slamming into the discernible atmosphere at nearly 20,000 mph. Over the next few minutes, atmospheric friction will quickly slow the craft, generating heat shield temperatures of some 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The entry velocity and heating represent about 84 percent of what an Orion capsule will experience returning from deep space. Engineers are especially anxious to assess the performance of the heat shield and the parachute system needed to slow the capsule from 300 mph to less than 20 mph at splashdown.

"This test flight is a big, big deal because it's going to give us an opportunity to demonstrate three big things about the vehicle," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told CBS News. "One, that it is capable of withstanding the temperatures and pressures of re-entry, so we're looking at the heat shield and the structure itself.

"We're looking for how (the spacecraft) performs on orbit, both (under) commands from the ground and autonomously while it's doing things it's programmed to do with its guidance and navigation system. And finally, once it makes its deorbit and gets through the atmosphere and it's time to decelerate, are the parachutes going to work? We think they are, we're confident they are, but the proof is in the pudding."

The test flight also will give NASA and Navy recovery crews a chance to test ocean recovery techniques that will be used when manned missions splash down.

But for Geyer, subjecting the Orion capsule to actual flight conditions is the key to validating the design.

"Using the Delta 4 heavy gets us 15 times higher than space station and about 84 percent of lunar entry velocity," he said. "So we start seeing that different physics, we start seeing those very high temperatures, high velocities, so that's one of the big things we'll test.

"And as we go through the Van Allen belts, we're going to see this radiation effect on the computers. We're going to measure, with dosimeters, the environment but we're also going to see how the avionics behave, which is actually more important, and how do our mitigations work?"

As for re-entry, "we have a lot of parachutes because we need to slow the vehicle down from about 300 mph to 20 mph, so we do that in stages," he said. "We've done a lot of drop tests out in Yuma (Arizona) and looked at failure cases, but until you've actually dropped it in the exact air density and speed you're going to see, we're certainly going to learn stuff from that."

Or as Bolden said, the proof is in the pudding.