Exploration Flight Test 1 was the first test launch for Orion*, NASA’s next deep space exploration capsule. After a day of delays from exclusion zone boat incursions and stiff fuel valves, the mission launched on December 5th aboard a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket.
After one low orbit of the Earth, the capsule was boosted by its upper stage to a higher altitude of 3,600 miles, testing its ability to withstand passing through the radiation of the Van Allen Belts, and returning a great view of Earth from far away.
From 3,600 miles Orion fell back into Earth’s atmosphere, with a high speed boost from the upper stage before separation, to test the heat shield’s ability to withstand reentry heat at near-lunar return velocities. Orion survived, parachuting down to the Pacific Ocean, successful and intact.
This uncrewed high altitude orbital test, somewhat akin to Apollo 4, is the first step in the long journey towards human interplanetary exploration. Next big launch for Orion: Exploration Mission 1 in 2018, when the grand Space Launch System launches Orion on a new uncrewed mission around the moon. If that goes well we might see a launch with people onboard in 2021.
* Although personally I’ll always associate the name “Orion” with nuclear pulse propulsion.