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After a test launch, NASA’s new Orion spacecraft looks good to go, perhaps eventually to somewhere other than low Earth orbit, which has been the focus of manned flight since the end of the Apollo era. So how is it happy and shiny?
1) Orion can carry a crew of seven, much like the space shuttle. That’s a lot more than the three-man capsules of the Apollo days. However, it won’t be launching satellites or building space stations like the shuttle did. Orion is constructed as a building block for long-term, long-distance human spaceflight.
2) It can’t get us to Mars, though– at least, not yet. Orion isn’t equipped for traveling quite that far. It will most likely hang out in Earth-lunar orbit.
3) Celebrated flight director Gene Kranz of Apollo 13 fame visited Orion’s Flight Control Room in Houston before liftoff.
4) Although no one was on board, Orion’s mission was the longest distance a spacecraft intended for human flight has flown in over four decades.
5) It’s also the first time since 1966 that a spacecraft of this type has launched from Cape Canaveral. All Apollo and shuttle launches departed from Kennedy Space Center, which is separated from the Cape by the Banana River.
6) There is talk of possibly using Orion to explore an asteroid that has been captured into lunar orbit. But there’s debate about the scientific value of an asteroid mission, as well as the feasibility of such a plan. If that happens, it won’t be for a solid decade.
7) The heat shield on Orion is the largest ever placed on a spacecraft. It experienced about 4,000 degrees during its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
8) During Orion’s test flight, it orbited the Earth twice, traveling over 60,000 miles in four and a half hours.
9) The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket that lifted Orion aloft is currently the biggest launcher on the planet. The rocket which will replace it, however, will be even larger.
10) Since the winged space shuttle needed to carefully navigate to an unpowered landing to a runway either at the Kennedy Space Center or Edwards Air Force Base, it took 40 minutes to land. Orion, however, with its gumdrop shape and the Pacific Ocean as its landing zone, descended in only 10 minutes.
11) The first Orion launch with astronauts aboard might take place by 2020.