JOHNSON SPACE CENTER — NASA dropped an Orion mock-up capsule from 35,000 feet above the Arizona desert Wednesday in the highest-altitude spacecraft parachute test since the Apollo program.
The test demonstrated that the spacecraft can land safely with only two of its three parachutes, a key step in preparing Orion to carry humans past low Earth orbit and into space.
Previous demonstrations had cut one of Orion’s parachutes and dropped the capsule from a height of 25,000 feet, but the extra 10,000 feet in Wednesday’s test provided the clearest image yet of how the craft will perform upon returning to Earth.
Orion is on schedule to meet the requirements for its first mission in September 2014. The craft will launch 3,600 miles into orbit before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds up to 20,000 mph.
The capsule is an integral part of NASA’s plan to lasso an asteroid into the moon’s orbit. Orion would carry astronauts to the captured rock for testing and exploration.
However, there are concerns about the cost and efficiency of the mission, which has been lambasted by House Republicans.
Last week, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology took aim at the asteroid retrieval mission, passing a NASA authorization bill that would prohibit the agency from pursuing the project without special approval from Congress.