The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA's Orion spacecraft mounted atop lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 37 at 7:05 EST this morning. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)

Orion Launch Is Trial by Fire for Apollo-Era Heat Shield

Dec. 5, 2014
NASA's Orion vehicle will carry humans farther than ever before, but its heat shield is the same as that used for the Apollo Moon missions four decades ago.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA's Orion vehicle aims to carry humans farther into space than ever before, but its protective heat shield is basically the same as that used for the Apollo Moon missions four decades ago.

"We know it worked," said Orion program manager Mark Geyer after the test flight of concluded successfully on Friday.

But Geyer and others are eager for a closer look at exactly how well the shield performed in the coming days, after describing the cover as a key element of the first-ever space launch of the United States' new multipurpose capsule destined to someday take astronauts to the Moon, an asteroid or Mars.

"We need something to protect the astronauts who are going to be inside," said Jim Tibaudo, director of business development at Textron (IW 500/98), which makes the shield at its factory in Wilmington, Massachusetts.

The sides of the capsule are protected by tiles similar to those that coated the bellies of the space shuttle fleet over an area that will reach up to 3,150 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Two small holes have been drilled into two of the tiles in Orion's back shell," Dean said. "One is one inch deep and the second is 1.4 inches deep."

After the Pacific Ocean splashdown, experts planned to give the spacecraft a close look to see how it performed, and compare it to photos of the returning Apollo modules.

"For us, I think the first thing to see is, was it good enough to land in the ocean? Is it in one piece?" said Tibaudo. "The surface will be charred, it will look like it is burned. We are hoping it is relatively smooth. You could eventually have a catastrophic failure if there is an uneven surface."

The spacecraft was to stay powered up for one hour after it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean to allow Lockheed Martin (IW 500/30) to gather data on how it performed.

By Kerry Sheridan

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2014

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