CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The launch debut of NASA's first deep-space capsule in more than 40 years will have to wait at least another day after a series of delays thwarted repeated liftoff attempts on Thursday (Dec. 4).
The Orion spacecraft, NASA's first space capsule since the Apollo era, was poised to launch from a pad here at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to test its heat shield, parachutes and other vital spaceship functions. But the unmanned test flight was unable to blast off during a 2-hour, 39-minute window due to a series of issues and glitches.
First, a wayward boat strayed into the offshore danger zone during the last few minutes of an initial launch try at 7:04 a.m. EST (1204 GMT). Then, unacceptably high winds at the launch site tripped sensors that triggered automatic launch aborts two separate times, both within minutes of liftoff. [Orion's First Test Flight: Full Coverage]
Finally, as the launch window neared its final hour, a fuel valve issue forced launch controllers to conduct extra tests on the Orion's massive Delta 4 Heavy rocket, prompting even more delays. In the end, engineers couldn't fix the valve issue — which involved several of the rocket's "fill and drain" valves not closing properly — in time for Orion to get off the ground on Thursday.
Orion's next chance to fly
NASA's next chance to launch Orion will come on Friday (Dec. 5) at 7:05 a.m. EST (1205 GMT), with forecasts calling for just a 40 percent chance of good weather for the launch try. You canwatch the Orion test flight live on Space.com, beginning at 6 a.m. EST (1100 GMT), courtesy NASA TV.
"Our plan is to fly tomorrow," NASA's Orion program manager Mark Geyer told reporters after the launch scrub today. Geyer said that, despite the somewhat dismal weather forecast, the potential for high winds during the launch will be less than what was seen today.
Dan Collins, the Chief Operating Officer for the United Launch Alliance that built Orion's Delta 4 Heavy rocket, said that fuel storage limitations for the booster will only allow for two launch attempts within a three-day period. ULA will decide in the wee hours of Friday — before fueling begins for the rocket — whether to press ahead with a launch try tomorrow or to skip ahead to Saturday, Dec. 6. If the Delta 4 Heavy rocket is fueled on Friday, but does not launch, NASA would have to wait to at least Sunday to attempt another try.
NASA's deep-space vehicle
The Orion spacecraft is a deep-space vehicle designed to fly astronauts on missions to the moon, Mars and beyond. NASA aims to capture a near-Earth asteroid and tow it near the moon so astronauts can study it up close by 2025. In the 2030s, NASA intends to send astronauts on to Mars. The Orion spacecraft is the linchpin vehicle for both projects, with Lockheed Martin building the craft for NASA.
But first, NASA wants to know that some basic technologies on Orion — primarily its huge heat shield and vital parachute landing system —will work when astronauts have to rely on them. That's where the unmanned Orion flight test this week (called Exploration Flight Test-1) comes in.
Lockheed Martin is overseeing the $370 million test flight for NASA. It is the first time since the Apollo 17 moon landing mission of December 1972 that a NASA spacecraft designed to carry astronauts will fly beyond low-Earth orbit. [NASA's Orion Test Flight: A Step-by-Step Photo Guide]
The test flight will launch an Orion capsule on a 4.5-hour mission designed to mimic the harsh re-entry conditions the vehicle would experience when returning to Earth from the moon or Mars.
The United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy will launch the Orion capsule out to an altitude of 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometers), with the capsule then returning to Earth at a mind-blowing 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h), forcing its heat shield to withstand blistering temperatures of nearly 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,200 degrees Celsius).
After two orbits of Earth, Orion is scheduled to re-enter Earth's atmosphere, deploy its parachutes and splash down in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles (966 km) southwest of San Diego, California. A U.S. Navy team working with NASA will recover the test Orion capsule and tow it back to shore.
If all goes well, the Orion test flight will set the stage for an even more ambitious mission in late 2017 or 2018, when the capsule will launch on the first flight of NASA's new mega-rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). SLS and Orion will fly a crew together for the first time in 2021.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 11 a.m. EST to correct the launch weather forecast for Friday, which is 40-percent go, not 60-percent favorable. A second update at 1 p.m. EST includes new details from a NASA press conference.