The NASA Orion spacecraft will one day, probably in the decade of the 2030s, take human beings to the planet Mars, marking the greatest leap for mankind — as Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, might say — in human history. But when the Orion made its first flight on December 5, it carried no one on board.
But that doesn’t mean we mere Earthlings can’t see what it was like to fly on the Orion as the NASA craft plunged back into Earth’s atmosphere after a four-and-a-half hour flight that took it to an altitude of 3,604 miles. That, according to NASA, is “farther than any spacecraft built for humans has been in more than 40 years.”
By comparison, the International Space Station orbits at about 260 miles above Earth. But Mars itself, where the Orion is planned to eventually travel, is 35 million miles from Earth, so the initial Orion flight came nowhere near where it will finally go.
Because the Orion was indeed “built for humans,” it comes complete with a window for the crew to peer out and view the amazing sights of space. This time, however, only a camera pointed out the window. And on Friday, NASA published a 10-minute video of what that camera recorded as Orion approached, then plummeted into Earth’s atmosphere — on its way to a flawless splashdown off the coast of San Diego.
The video can be viewed above. Here’s how NASA described what the video shows.
“The video begins 10 minutes before Orion’s 11:29 a.m. EST splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, just as the spacecraft was beginning to experience Earth’s atmosphere. Peak heating from the friction caused by the atmosphere rubbing against Orion’s heat shield comes less than two minutes later, and the footage shows the plasma created by the interaction change from white to yellow to lavender to magenta as the temperature increases. The video goes on to show the deployment of Orion’s parachutes and the final splash as it touches down.”
The video feed is briefly lost as the temperatures on the surface of the Orion spacecraft reach 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and maintaining the data communications becomes simply impossible.
Orion reached a speed of 20,000 miles per hour on its maiden voyage, faster than any manned or potentially manned spaceship has ever traveled. But NASA promises that “Orion will travel faster and experience even higher temperatures on future missions, when it returns from greater distances.”