They lined the pier hundreds deep, a mass of Orion engineers, Nasa employees and their families at Jetty Park in Cape Canaveral, Florida, tensely waiting to watch the critical next test in a project on which many of them have invested the better part of the last decade.
The orange glow of the sun pouring over the horizon, they squinted into the distance at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Pad 46, where precisely at 7am on July 2, the spacecraft that will one day take astronauts back to the moon shot up, like a mullet leaping out of the water, into the sky.
Its mission: To test abort systems, proving the craft can save its human inhabitants in the case of an emergency mid-flight, though there were no astronauts on board for this flight.
Traveling at about 800mph (1,287kph), the 93-foot (28m) stack consisting of a Northrop Grumman booster and Lockheed Martin-built crew module and launch abort system climbed to about 31,000 feet (9,448m) in 50 seconds.
Just then, a roar crashed over the surf as the capsule initiated its abort. “That was it, that was it!” shouted Cindy Cross, an Orion system manager for active thermal control at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, as the booster separated, leaving the crew module and abort system in free fall.
From the pier, Stu McClung, an engineer on Orion also out of Houston, watched the capsule begin to flip and position itself for descent.
The motors ignited on the tower-shaped launch abort system, causing it to separate and leaving only the crew module to drop back to the water.
“It looks like a good clean sep,” McClung said, referring to the split of the last two components – a critical part of the test’s success.
“Clean sep is what you really need.”
Shortly after, the crew module – a test version of Orion – crashed into the water, making a big splash in the horizon. The capsule broke into pieces before sinking.
“Ohhhh!” the crowd shouted.
McClung took a breath. He’s Orion’s programme planning and control chief of staff, and he’s been working on the spacecraft since 2007.“A test like this culminates a lot of effort,” he said.
Up next, teams will analyse the data collected in 900 sensors on the vehicle and 12 data recorders deployed shortly before the capsule hit the Atlantic.
So far, though, it appears everything went as planned.
“We couldn’t ask for a better flight, better mission, better performance,” said Don Reed, Nasa’s Orion abort test project manager.
As for crew safety, the initial data shows that had there been astronauts on board, they would “have been fine – with parachutes, of course,” Reed said.
Last week’s launch was more focused on testing the launch abort system itself. The parachutes on Orion have been tested 47 times, Reed said. In addition to the data from the craft, Nasa was able to recover all 12 of the data recorders about an hour after launch, though they were equipped with a phone number and email address in case a beach-goer found them washed up on the shore later.
Last week’s test was the last major public milestone for Orion before it completes some smaller-scale testing in the coming year.
“The next big check mark is the moon,” said Mark Kirasich, Orion’s programme manager.
Orion is part of the Nasa’s planned Artemis programme, which is expected to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. The next time the full abort system will fly will be on Artemis 2, Orion’s first mission carrying a crew on a lunar flyby in 2023.
Then, the system will be stacked atop the Space Launch System, built by Boeing, instead.
The launch abort system won’t be needed for Artemis 1 as the first test mission won’t carry astronauts. The 2024 lunar landing would be on Artemis 3.
Orion already performed another successful test of its abort systems from a launch pad – not in flight – in 2010.
And in 2014, a test version of the craft was sent into Earth orbit to test its heat sastronauthields.
But last week’s test was the most challenging check of its crucial safety hardware.
It put the abort system under the most intense stress it will feel, as the rocket and the crew module push through the crushing pressure of the atmosphere.
Getting away, like it did last week, and moving the crew safely away from the launch vehicle is, in McClung’s words, like “you’re outrunning the exploding fireball.” – Tribune News Service/Orlando Sentinel/Chabeli Herrera