After passing a big test, what’s next for Orion on the way to Mars?

NASA’s Orion space capsule splashed down into the Pacific Ocean this morning after spending 4.5 hours doing two loops around Earth. This was only the first spaceflight test of many that will eventually enable Orion to carry astronauts to an asteroid and then Mars.

The asteroid trip will not happen until the 2020s. A visit to Mars and its moons is scheduled for the 2030s. In the meantime, NASA will crunch the data collected by the 1,200 sensors attached to this initial Orion craft.

“We’re already working on the next capsule,” Lockheed Martin’s Orion program manager Mike Hawes said in a blog post. “We’ll learn a tremendous amount from what we did today.”

The Orion spacecraft after splashdown.

The Orion spacecraft after splashdown.

The U.S. Navy, NASA and Lockheed Martin got to work this morning fishing the Orion capsule out of the ocean. But NASA has already logged one thing that went wrong with the flight: Only three of its five airbags deployed during the splashdown. That was more than enough to keep it safe, however, so overall the flight went very well.

The sensor data will provide more information in the coming weeks, such as how Orion dealt with the increase in temperature while reentering Earth’s atmosphere and if it was damaged by radiation. Oh, and they’ll note if cute trinkets on board like a Captain Kirk action figure made it back safely.

The next Orion spaceflight will take place in 2018, when Orion is scheduled to fly around the moon. It will return to the moon in 2021 with astronauts on board, at which point nearly 50 years will have passed since the last manned lunar flight.