In a trial run late Wednesday, the craft was taken 35,000 feet above U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground by a C-17 aircraft and dropped -- making it more of test fall than a test flight. The craft's parachute system performed ideally, enabling Orion to return softly to the Arizona desert sands below.
It was a passing grade for the chute's first high-altitude test. To put extra aerodynamic stress on the system, engineers allowed Orion to free fall for 10 seconds after being dropped from the plane.
"We've put the parachutes through their paces in ground and airdrop testing in just about every conceivable way before we begin sending them into space on EFT-1 before the year's done," said Mark Geyer, manager of the Orion mission. "The series of tests has proven the system and will help ensure crew and mission safety for our astronauts in the future."
EFT-1, short for Exploration Flight Test, will be Orion's first true test, a trip to space. Though the craft -- designed to carry humans -- won't bring any astronauts with it during EFT-1, it will travel farther into space than any spacecraft with human-carrying capacity has in more than 40 years.
In December of this year, Orion will be flung some 3,600 miles into the cold of space. It will orbit Earth four times in just four hours before returning.
Before that, though, Orion must successfully complete three more tests -- the first of which, another parachute test, is scheduled for August.
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