“Liftoff, at dawn, the dawn of Orion, and a new era of American space exploration.” Those words, spoken by NASA launch countdown and liftoff commentator Mike Currie, echoed around the world on the morning of Dec. 5, 2014, when NASA’s Orion deep space crew capsule took to the skies on its maiden voyage atop the world’s most powerful rocket, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy. The mission, Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), put the unmanned capsule into action to validate its systems and capabilities, orbiting the Earth twice and reaching an altitude of 3,600 miles before plummeting back home for a violent 20,000 mph re-entry and smooth 20 mph splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Originally Dec. 4 was launch day, but a series of incidents—along with unfavorable liftoff winds—forced the launch team at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station SLC-37B to keep the rocket grounded for 24 hours. The following day’s weather forecast was rather poor, with only a 40 percent chance of acceptable conditions expected, but the scattered rain showers kept their distance and all systems were reported GO for an on-time liftoff at 7:05 a.m. EST, and an on-time liftoff is exactly what happened.
Just 16 days shy of the 10th anniversary of its first launch, ULA’s colossal 240+ foot tall Delta-IV Heavy came roaring to life on three Aerojet-Rocketdyne RS-68 engines, igniting over two million pounds of thrust as it began its violent ascent off the pad to put the first human-capable spacecraft for Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration in more than four decadesthrough its paces.
As we reported after splashdown, the mission was a huge success, and the press corps at Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) Press Site were glued to NASA’s live coverage along with the rest of the nation. However, unlike the rest of the world, the press at KSC had a front row seat to the launch, and the photojournalists in particular were given many opportunities to document history in the making from several different angles. With that said, not only did our team of veteran aerospace photographers set up an army of cameras surrounding the launch pad, but our team also spread out over several different viewing areas to bring our readers a well-rounded gallery highlighting the day America’s new spacecraft took flight for the first time.
Orion won’t fly again until 2018, when NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket flies for the first time, and that mission too (Exploration Mission-1 / EM-1) will be unmanned, as it will be the first time the entire SLS / Orion system will be put into action. Assuming that EM-1 goes as planned, the first crewed mission on Orion will occur in 2021, but with so many years between now and then the future of Orion is as uncertain as the politics which control its fate. Either way, presented here is our gallery of still and video imagery from Orion’s historic first flight.