NASA's First Orion Launch Is a Big Deal for Houston

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The spacecraft stood there gleaming on the launchpad as the countdown began, the numbers ticked off by a cool, measured voice. On NASA TV, the audibly giddy voice of the announcer took over, his voice raised to an almost-shout. "Three-two one and lift off art dawn, the dawn of Orion and a new era of American space exploration."

Orion launched on Friday morning and kicked off the start of a new age in space exploration before it had even fully cleared the launchpad.

Despite the scrubbed launch on Thursday morning -- canceled due to high winds, a valve problem and some idiot on an unauthorized boat in the area that we still hate -- thousands of people around the world gathered to watch the second attempt to launch the craft on Friday morning.

Today the wind was good, the spacecraft was go for launch and there were no mystery boats screwing things up. NASA had a two-hour-and-39-minute launch window on Friday, and this time everything clicked into place.

The Delta IV Heavy Rocket lit up and Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida was covered in plumes of flame. The Delta IV rocket lifted off the pad and jetted through the sky, and the whole thing was pure joy to watch. But the best part, for the Houston-minded, at least, came in about 15 minutes after, once Orion was safely hurling through space.

This is the biggest moment NASA has had since the shuttle program ended in 2011. It's arguably a huge thing for Johnson Space Center, too. JSC was hit hard when the shuttle program ended in 2011 -- training astronauts and handling the part of space flight where people are actually in space is pretty much what Johnson Space Center does, what it's known for.

After the shuttle was retired and Constellation -- the moon-focused program that was supposed to replace it -- was killed due to budget cuts, Johnson Space Center was left without any real focus. However, Orion was one of the few things salvaged from the end of Constellation, and it turns out that's pretty awesome because now NASA has a mission -- to go to Mars -- and, as was shown today, Johnson Space Center is definitely part of making that mission happen.

Once Orion got under way, Exploration Flight Test-1 became a Houston show. After ignition, Johnson Space Center stepped in. "This is Mission Control Houston. We're taking over commentary at this point as we come up on the first two critical Orion program milestones," a man from the Johnson Space Center said on NASA TV.

Getting Orion and the Delta IV heavy rocket off the ground was important, but the next few hours were what the whole test was about, and the folks at the Johnson Space Center, headed up by Mike Sarafin, Orion flight director at Johnson Space Center, were running the show.

During the flight, Orion flew 3,600 miles away from Earth -- this is about 15 times higher than the low-earth-orbiting International Space Station and the first time we've sent anything to the further reaches of space since 1972. The craft then took two loops around the Earth to test the avionics, heat shield and parachutes (all stuff that needs to work and work well before actual people travel in the craft) before hurtling back into the planet's atmosphere at 20,000 mph and splashing into the Pacific Ocean, about 600 miles off the coast of California. The whole test took about four hours to complete.

The Orion capsule didn't carry people this trip, but it was loaded down with people's stuff, including a T-Rex fossil, an oxygen hose from an Apollo 11 suit, some of famed astronaut Sally Ride's belongings and even a little bit of moon dust, according to a NASA release. And while Orion is probably years away from being judged safe for astronauts, the craft was designed to transport four astronauts for up to 21 days.

NASA requires three of these test flights before the craft is deemed safe for astronauts, but the big point here is the agency actually testing this thing for astronauts. Supposedly this first test is part of a plan to take astronauts to land on an asteroid (the controversial "lasso an asteroid" plan) and from there to Mars.

While not everyone is sold on the Mars thing -- there's been debate over whether we should be aiming for Mars or exploring our own moon -- the main thing is NASA astronauts might actually be going somewhere besides the International Space Station in the coming years. And that is huge for both the Johnson Space Center, home of manned space flight, and Houston. After being sidelined with the end of the shuttle program, Orion is a sign that Space City could be back in the game. "We haven't had this feeling in awhile, since the end of the shuttle program," Sarafin told CNN in a pre-flight briefing Wednesday.

Orion is being heralded as the start of a new era. We proved we could build a space program with Mercury, we proved we could go to the moon with Apollo, we proved we could make technological leaps and bounds with the space shuttle, and now with Orion we're aiming for Mars. From a practical angle, a resurgence in the space program that leaves Johnson Space Center in the loop will mean both some regained prestige for the center and some potential growth in our aerospace industry. (Johnson Space Center and the contractors around it peeled off about 4,000 jobs after the shuttle program ended, as KTRK points out.) But that's all most likely years away.

The big deal about today's launch and successful test and recovery of the craft is that the feeling -- the pure electric excitement that used to come with Mercury and Apollo and the shuttle launches -- was palpable today when Orion launched. There's a reason to get excited about space exploration again, and Johnson Space Center and Houston are right in the middle of it.

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