by Prasad Ganti
The ride lasted only 4.5 hours. The space enthusiasts waited with bated breath for a successful early morning launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida; a successful circling of the Earth; a trip into deep space in an elongated orbit; a fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and opening of parachutes to soften the landing into the Pacific Ocean. The spacecraft was whisked away by the waiting navy ships to the mainland ending another space saga.
Sounds like one of the pre-Apollo missions from almost fifty years ago. No, it happened on December 6th, 2014. What is different about this mission? The spacecraft weighed a massive 23 tons. It is built primarily to carry crew into deep space, probably a mission to a comet or to Mars in a decade or two. This was an experimental mission to test Orion with thousands of sensors to monitor various flight parameters, with a heat shield meant to withstand four thousand degrees generated during the re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and obviously no human crew to serve as guinea pigs.
Space exploration is about taking baby steps, dealing with the consequent stumbles and improving with each step. It cannot be viewed as a glass half empty. It cannot be a simple exercise in bean counting returns on investments. It is simply too valuable like any other basic research.
Orion is the next generation spacecraft meant to carry crew into deep space. A crew-carrying spacecraft is more complex than an unmanned cargo spacecraft. It needs life support systems to provide air for breathing, and water for consumption and cleansing. Such a heavy spacecraft had to be lifted by the most powerful launch vehicle, the Delta 4 heavy rocket. Below is a picture of the spacecraft and the launch vehicle and the sequence of events.
The next baby step will be in 2018. It will also be an unmanned mission. NASA is building a giant Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. Heavy launch vehicles need powerful engines, powerful boosters, and more fuel. During the 2018 flight, known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), Orion would fly around the moon and return back to Earth.
Coming close on the heels of the Orion module test, came a similar experiment, on a smaller scale by Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Carried out on Dec 18 2014, called CARE (Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment), it involved a 3.7 ton module for future manned missions. India’s latest launch vehicle GSLV (Geostationary Space Launch Vehicle) Mark 3, a 3 stage rocket shot into the space carrying the crew module on the top. First stage is a solid booster followed by second stage a liquid fueled engine. The third stage was an experimental cryogenic engine called C25 which was passive on this flight. CARE separated from the cryogenic stage and reached a height of 126 km (~80 miles) and then re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and safely parachuted itself to a safe landing over Bay of Bengal just about half an hour after the launch. This experiment augurs well both for future manned missions as well as the cryogenic engines which are critical for lifting heavy loads into space.