Friday, 5 December 2014

Back to the future


 Photos: Nasa
Today's first-ever test flight of NASA's Orion deep-space capsule is all about the future of America's space effort - but it's also about reviving the past.

"I feel like the Blues Brothers - we're getting the band back together," Bob Cabana, director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center, told a pre-launch news conference in front of Orion's Florida launch pad.

After a 24 hour launch delay the Delta IV Heavy and Orion cleared the tower in just a few seconds to begin a carefully choreographed climb skyward.

The core stages on either side of the rocket burned their propellants and fell away at T+3minutes, 56 seconds. The central core stage continued for another 94 seconds as the rocket and spacecraft climbed higher and picked up more speed. The first stage fell away and the second stage took over to put Orion into an initial orbit of 115 miles by 552 miles.

Orion is Nasa’s successor to the Space Shuttle and the agency hopes it will take humans further into space than ever before, possibly as far as Mars. The test flight is the start of a “new chapter in human space exploration”, the agency says.

Primary purpose of the mission was to test a new 16 foot wide heat shield aimed at protecting the capsule, which can carry up to six astronauts. After two orbits, Orion plunged to Earth off the coast of Baja, California, travelling at 20,000 mph and generating 2,200 C as it plunged through the atmosphere.

Nasa confidently asserts that Orion will send people to an asteroid and onward to Mars, but the first astronauts are not scheduled to travel in it for at least seven years, which is a long time in space politics.

Even this crew-less outing - known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) - carried echoes of Apollo. The 4.5 hour trip sent Orion 3,600 miles out from Earth, the farthest that a spacecraft meant for humans has flown since 1972.

And it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean - just like NASA's last Apollo spaceship that returned to Earth at the end of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

For NASA, even the fact that people are paying attention to the Orion test flight comes as a welcome blast from the past. The space agency said more than 500 journalists were accredited to cover the launch, which is more than for any other Florida launch since the Shuttle fleet's retirement.


Orion is being developed by Lockheed Martin alongside a powerful new rocket that will have its own debut in three or four years' time. Together, they will form the core capabilities needed to send humans beyond the International Space Station (ISS).

Today's flight therefore was on a stand-in Delta IV-Heavy rocket - currently the largest US launcher which duly delivered a fiery launch spectacle to the millions of people watching Nasa’s live internet broadcasts.

At this point immediately after the mission it seems that just about everything worked perfectly. The test will go down as a huge success as analysing the data begins in earnest.

However, in the background, there are still worries about the strength of political commitment  underpinning to the Orion programme - and any resulting lack of money could mean the momentum of successive missions becomes hard to maintain.
       
Space rarely seems to be out of the news these days. Hot on the heels of last month’s Rosetta and the inspiring  Philae comet lander we've also had an ESA ministerial meeting (at which decisions are made on the funding of future European space programmes) this week .

The UK has committed over £50 million to the project that has an estimated price tag of €340 million. But with promises extending to €180 million for funding, the ExoMars plan is still short of all the funds it needs.

According to ESA's pragmatic director general Jean-Jaques Dordain that is more than enough to be getting on with, thank you very much. It means that Britain will likely take the lead and build the rover on these shores.

The government's pledge to the ExoMars programme amounts to £55 million, alongside a similar amount to help keep the Space Station operating in orbit. This more than triples the sum offered as a ‘one-off' payment to the ISS two years ago.

Eager to join the positive band wagon, even George Osborne managed to work in a quip or two about Mars exploration and his great support for space when introducing his budget deficit this week in the House of Commons.

Joking at the expense of the opposition benches, Mr Osborne said: "We on this side of the house have often gazed at the barren and desolate wastelands of the red planet. We have long given up hope of finding intelligent life there. But signs of any life at all would be a major advance."

The country's growing space industry is at last getting the recognition and investment it needs - not just ‘because it is there’ but because politicians now recognise it is a pretty shrewd investment for the country as a whole.

Credit must be given to all political parties. The good work in space was started by the last labour government and has been continued by the coalition in a true example of what joined up, long-term thinking should be about. If only this could be applied in other areas - like the country's energy policy.

It does remain to be seen, however, whether Nigel Farage and his Ukip brigade have anything like a space plan scribbled on the back of a fag packet should they get anywhere near the final countdown during next May's elections. I guess we just have to say, ‘watch this space’.

Report by Clive Simpson

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