This December, Orion left for a 60,000 mile journey through space, to land at sea to be carried 600 miles back to shore, and finally went on a 2,500-mile road trip home. Here's the whole journey from construction through the flight and back home, in pictures.
Top image: Delta IV Heavy blasting off with Orion on-board. Credit: Mike Howard/Spaceflight Insider
Orion is the new NASA prototype vehicle intended for human deep space exploration. After months of tracking construction, transportation, and assembly, we were in the final countdown of excitement preparing for the first uncrewed test flight.
Launch of the Orion spacecraft on the morning of Friday, December 5, 2014.
The test flight was intended to launch on Thursday, December 4th. It faced a one-day delay due to weather and frozen valves, then took off without a hitch on Friday morning. After a beautiful test flight, it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, was recovered, shipped home, and is undergoing analysis to learn as much as possible about everything that happened.
For a truly extensive gallery on testing and assembling the Orion prototype, you're going to want to head to this excellent feature on Rocket STEM, but here's a quick visual summary:
Lockheed Martin built a non-functional copy of Orion before ever starting work on the spacecraft in order to practice manufacturing and identify any hiccups in their system. Image credit: Lockheed Martin
Crew capsule prior to installation of heat tiles. Image credit: NASA
Wrapping the shell of the service module mockup for the test flight. Image credit: NASA
Installing back shell tiles to the crew capsule. Image credit: NASA
Warping covers on the crew capsule after mating it to the launch abort system. Image credit: NASA
Mating the Orion spacecraft to the Delta IV rocket. Image credit: NASA/Radislav Sinyak
Launch From Florida
The launch out of Cape Canaveral was supposed to off on Thursday, but was delayed by gusting winds and cranky gear. But it launched on Friday, and was just as spectacular as we hoped:
Orion and its rocket sitting on the pad at Space Launch Complex 37 in Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at sunrise on Thursday December 4th, 2014. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
NASA's Orion spacecraft mounted to the top of a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket after the Mobile Service Tower was finished rolling back during the first launch attempt on Thursday, December 4th, 2014. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Delta IV rocket with the Orion spacecraft mounted to the top, ready for launch. Image credit: NASA/Radislav Sinyak
Orion blasting off on top of a Delta IV Heavy rocket at 7:05 am EST, on Friday December 5, 204. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
A moment of human spaceflight history: the Apollo Pad 34 in the foreground as Orion launches in the background. Image credit: Sean Costello/Spaceflight Insider
Service module fairing separation. Image credit: NASA
The heat of reentry sears the windows on the Orion crew capsule. Image credit: NASA
The view from inside Orion's crew capsule during reentry that an astronaut would have seen if this were a crewed test flight. Image credit: NASA
Splashdown in the Pacific
Orion deploys parachutes in sequence to slow down slowly. Image credit: US Navy
The spacecraft bobbing at sea despite only two of five stabilizing balloons successfully inflating. Image credit: US Navy
USS Anchorage fishing for the Orion capsule. Image credit: US Navy
US Navy divers swarm Orion to take submarine photographs of the heat shield, then attach a collar and winch line to the spacecraft for towing. Image credit: US Navy
Crew in a Zodiac help guide Orion into flooded well bay for transport back to shore. Image credit: US Navy
Orion nestled up snugly within the well deck of USS Anchorage. Image credit: US Navy
From the well deck looking out to sea. Image credit: NASA
Back On Land
Dragging Orion off the well deck for transport home. Image credit: NASA
Orion crated up and ready to roll. Image credit: NASA
Orion on Mole Pier at Naval Base San Diego. Image credit: NASA
The spacecraft back in the Launch Abort System Facility at Kennedy Space Center, ready for welcome-home ceremonies and to be handed over to Lockheed Martin for analysis. Image credit: NASA
If you're feeling totally enamoured with our deep space prototype, you can print out a paper model to construct a mini-Orion for your desk. Do you have any favourite photos from the adventure that I missed?