A brisk December 2014 morning and the majesty of a Delta 4 Heavy rocket is standing alert on the launch pad ready to launch NASA’s Exploration Flight Test of its Orion space capsule on what will be its maiden voyage. When the rocket takes off it will be taking a two-orbit, forty-four hour journey before cascading back down to Earth.
As per the video above, the EFT-1 mission will first take the capsule up to 5800 km above the Earth’s surface (much further than the ISS – by about 15x’s) so that NASA can properly anticipate how she will respond to returning from space. The capsule will carry its instrumentation as part of the test which will allow NASA to refine the space craft’s design. As it falls back to the Earth the capsule will be enduring temperatures of approximately 4000 Fahrenheit and then splash down in the Pacific Ocean off of the coast of California. NASA (and the Navy) will then recover the capsule for study.
Of course there are a number of months between now and December so what is NASA doing with all that time? A whole lot, it turns out. Currently underway at the Kennedy Space Center is final assembly and pre-flight testing. While it is already loaded with most of its avionics and control components, functional testing is underway – checking each of the systems one by one, powering them up, and making sure they all operate together. Ultimately not only will all the systems, radios, flight computers etc. be operating but the sensors will be tricked into thinking that the capsule is flying in space; hen there’s installing the plumbing and reaction control system, outfitting the crew module, attaching the tiles, oh, and building the service module.
In April, the 16.4 foot in diameter heat shield is slated to be installed. This heat shield represents the largest of its kind.
Shortly after that it will be mated with the crew and service modules.
AND there is more. The EFT-1 rocket is also being put together. The core and starboard boosters for the Delta 4 heavy are already at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but the port side booster is still being built down in Alabama and along with the upper stage will be there in time for integration & testing.
The mission was originally scheduled for some time in the autumn but was changed to the winter possibly to free up some space on the launch schedule to enable two satellites to launch prior to the testing.
Regardless NASA plans on continuing to prepare Orion as if the original dates were still intact.