The first orbital test flight of NASA’s Orion crew capsule will lift off on top of a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 37B launch pad. The rocket will send the unmanned crew module 3,600 miles above Earth — 15 times higher than the International Space Station’s orbit — then drive the capsule back into the atmosphere at 20,000 mph to simulate a re-entry at near lunar return velocity.
Orion’s software, avionics, separation systems, and heat shield are among the systems to be tested on the EFT-1 mission. The 16-foot-diameter capsule will encounter temperatures up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit during re-entry before parachuting into the Pacific Ocean for recovery by a U.S. Navy vessel.
T-0:00:07 Main engine start
The Delta 4-Heavy rocket’s three RS-68 main engines ignite at T-minus 5.5 seconds and build up thrust before the launcher is cleared for liftoff.
The Delta 4-Heavy rocket soars away from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 37B launch pad.
T+0:03:56 Separation of port and starboard Common Booster Cores
The 15-story tall starboard and port Common Booster Cores that provided the vast majority of thrust during the first four minutes of flight have expended their fuel and peeled away from the center stage. Tiny solid-fueled motors on the discarded boosters gave helpful nudges to ensure a clean separation. The boosters will tumble into the Atlantic Ocean below.
T+0:05:33 Separation of center Common Booster Core
After shutting down its RS-68A main engine, the Delta 4’s core stage separates from the rocket’s upper stage.
T+ 0:05:49 Upper stage ignition
The Delta 4’s upper stage RL10 engine fires to put the Orion spacecraft in a preliminary orbit.
T+0:06:15 Service Module panel jettison
Three aerodynamic panels jettison from the Orion spacecraft’s mock-up service module once the rocket reaches an altitude above the dense atmosphere.
T+0:06:20 Launch Abort System jettison
The Orion spacecraft’s launch abort system tower fires away from the Delta 4 rocket. On a crewed launch, the abort system would be used to carry the astronauts away from a launch vehicle failure.
T+0:17:39 Cutoff of upper stage first burn
The Delta 4’s Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine shuts down after the first of two burns on the EFT-1 mission.
T+1:55:26 Ignition of upper stage second burn
The hydrogen-fueled RL10 engine re-ignites to send the Orion spacecraft to an orbit 3,600 miles above Earth and set up for a high-speed re-entry over the Pacific Ocean.
T+2:00:09 Cutoff of upper stage second burn
The RL10 upper stage engine is switched off after burning more than four-and-a-half minutes.
T+2:05:00 Entering first high radiation period
Orion enters a 15-minute period of intense radiation in the lower Van Allen Belt.
T+3:05:00 Peak altitude
Orion reaches 3,600 miles in altitude, the highest point in the flight test.
T+3:23:41 Crew Module/Service Module separation
The Orion spacecraft’s crew module — fitted with a heat shield — separates from the vehicle’s mock-up service module, which remains on the Delta 4 upper stage.
T+3:30:00 Entering second high radiation period
Orion passes down through the lower Van Allen radiation belt.
T+4:13:35 Entry blackout
The Orion crew module, shielded by an ablative thermal protection material called Avcoat, encounters the upper reaches of the atmosphere.
T+4:13:41 Entry blackout
A sheath of plasma around the Orion crew module disrupts communications with the capsule during the most intense phase of re-entry, when temperatures will reach 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit outside the craft.
T+4:15:03 Peak heating
Orion experiences the hottest temperatures on its return to Earth, reaching almost 4,000 degrees F.
T+4:16:05 Acquisition of signal
Signals from the Orion spacecraft are re-acquired.
T+4:19:31 Drogue chute deploy
Two seconds after the Orion spacecraft jettisons its forward bay cover, two drogue parachutes are released to begin the chute deployment sequence.
T+4:20:38 Main chute d eploy
Three orange and white main parachutes, measuring 116 feet in diameter each, are pulled out of their canisters and begin a multi-step disreefing and inflation sequence.
Under the three main parachutes, the Orion spacecraft reaches the Pacific Ocean at a predicted splashdown velocity of about 20 mph.