CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- They lined the pier hundreds deep, a mass of Orion engineers, NASA employees and their families at Jetty Park in Cape Canaveral, tensely waiting to watch the critical next test in a project on which many of them have invested the better part of the last decade.
The orange glow of the sun pouring over the horizon, they squinted into the distance at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Pad 46, where precisely at 7 a.m. EDT Tuesday the spacecraft that will one day take astronauts back to the moon shot up, like a mullet leaping out of the water, into the sky.
Its mission: to test abort systems, proving the craft can save its human inhabitants in the case of an emergency midflight, though there were no astronauts on board for this flight.
Traveling at about 800 mph, the 93-foot stack consisting of a Northrop Grumman booster and Lockheed Martin-built crew module and launch abort system climbed to about 31,000 feet in 50 seconds. Just then, a roar crashed over the surf as the capsule initiated its abort.
"That was it, that was it!" shouted Cindy Cross, an Orion system manager for active thermal control at Johnson Space Center in Houston, as the booster separated, leaving the crew module and abort system in free fall.
From the pier, Stu McClung, an engineer on Orion also out of Houston, watched the capsule begin to flip and position itself for descent. The motors ignited on the tower-shaped launch abort system, causing it to separate and leaving only the crew module to drop back to the water.
"It looks like a good clean sep," McClung said, referring to the split of the last two components -- a critical part of the test's success. "Clean sep is what you really need."
Shortly after, the crew module -- a test version of Orion -- crashed into the water, making a big splash in the horizon. The capsule broke into pieces before sinking.
"Ohhhh!" the crowd shouted.
McClung took a breath. He's Orion's program planning and control chief of staff, and he's been working on the spacecraft since 2007.