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NASA's Orion Completes First Test Flight


It had been looking like a bad year for space enthusiasts. In October, a rocket carrying supplies to the space station exploded. Just a few days after that, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, a craft intended to take tourists to space, crashed during a test flight, killing one pilot. Yesterday, though, some great news...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: 3, 2, 1. And lift off at dawn - the dawn of Orion and a new era of American space exploration.

RATH: NASA's Orion spacecraft lifted off just after 7 a.m. on Friday. This was an unmanned test flight for a spacecraft that will eventually take humans into deep space. Mission Control commentator Rob Navias narrated Orion's journey.


ROB NAVIAS: This is Mission Control, Houston. We're taking over commentary - moving from northwest to southeast, approaching the West Coast of Africa - one and a half hour mark into the mission. Houston, Orion is now approaching its peak altitude, having past 3,600 statute miles in altitude.

RATH: The spacecraft circled the earth twice, and after four hours and 24 minutes, it landed in the waters off the coast of California.


NAVIAS: Splashdown confirmed at 10:29 a.m. central time. Orion is back on earth. America has driven a golden spike as it crosses a bridge into the future.

RATH: Just minutes after that successful splashdown yesterday, we talked with Stuart McClung from the Kennedy Space Center. He's the landing and recovery manager for Orion.

STUART MCCLUNG: It's a flood of emotions for me, you know. It's almost a roller coaster ride, you know. It's an interesting challenge. You've got to stay focused on your task. But at the same time, this piece of hardware you helped create is flying, and there's a tremendous joy in watching that perform.

RATH: And can you explain exactly what happened with the test?

MCCLUNG: For us, it's about risk reduction - testing the vehicle in a relevant environment and doing the flight tests for the pieces of hardware that we couldn't necessarily all test on the ground. What you saw today was - how does this vehicle operate as an entire system?

RATH: So would you call it a successful test all around?

MCCLUNG: Yes. The vehicle had 1,200 sensors on it. Now we're going to take all of that data and use it to inform the design as we make the next vehicle and then the next one after that. So we can either make it safer if it needs to be made safer for the crew, or if we find that we can make something a little bit lighter, we'll do that.

RATH: And so what you do from here in order to get this capsule ready for humans?

MCCLUNG: Well, we have another couple of flight tests planned. We finished the rest of our test programs - some on other flight tests that'll come up in a few years and also other tests that'll be done in various labs. This data today we'll use to feed into our - the rest of our designs and then fine-tune the design. From the outside, what you saw today looks a lot like the vehicle that will fly when we put people inside.

RATH: What excites you the most about Orion?

MCCLUNG: This vehicle - this capsule, which you saw today, sets the stage for us and gives us that capability to open a new chapter to go to deep space, starting with the moon, asteroid evaluation missions and Mars someday. And so, you know, we all think of it as our baby that we just flew and watched successfully land while we're setting our baby up to go explore and do great things.

RATH: Stuart McClung is the landing and recovery manager for the Orion module. Stuart, thanks so much, and congratulations on the successful test.

MCCLUNG: Thank you very much. It was a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.