December 5, 2014: 1st Test Flight of NASA’s Next Manned Space Vehicle (Orion)

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A Brief History

On December 5, 2014, the American space agency, NASA, successfully launched an Orion space capsule with a Delta IV Heavy rocket supplying the lifting power. The unmanned Orion space capsule launched on this test flight is the first of America’s next generation of manned space vehicles.

Digging Deeper

The US has been without a manned space system of its own since the last of the Space Shuttles were retired in 2011. American astronauts have had to hitch rides with spacecraft from other countries in order to go to and from the International Space Station.

The Orion, named after the constellation representing a celestial hunter, will have a capacity of carrying 4 astronauts at a time.

Another hallmark of the Orion spacecraft is that for the first time since 1972 when last Apollo mission went into space, the US will have a craft capable of going beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO is variously defined, but generally is of an altitude of 90 to 600 miles from the Earth, but may in some definitions reach out to 1000 miles or a little more.) On its test flight, lasting only 5 hours, the Orion made it out to a distance of 3600 miles from Earth and traveled at a whopping 20,000 mph.

The next scheduled flight of an Orion capsule is sending an unmanned Orion on a trip around the Moon in 2018. In 2021 (give or take) the plan is to send a manned Orion mission on a trip around the Moon, and then a few years later Orion with a crew will explore an asteroid that has previously been “captured” by a robotic space craft. The Orion is expected to be the vehicle that will take the first humans to Mars at some point. As designed, the Orion can support 4 astronauts for up to 21 days.

The capsule is only 11 feet high by 16 feet in diameter, but with its service module weighs a hefty 56,995 pounds, with an additional 20,000 pounds of propellant. Living space is a cramped 316 cubic feet.

The Orion program has already cost US taxpayers around $12 billion, and another $6 billion is expected to be expended on the program over the next 5 years, with more flights and expenditures to follow. Whether or not the space program in general and the Orion project in particular is worth the expense is debatable. In all honesty, it is terribly hard for the author to decide if the expense it worth it.  Question for students (and subscribers): Perhaps you fine readers can chime in with your opinions about the value of the space program. Feel free to comment one way or the other in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Rice, Jr., Earle.  Orion Spacecraft (Engineering Feats).  Mitchell Lane Publishers, 2018.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.