Heat shield from Orion space capsule arrives in Huntsville

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – The Orion space capsule is an integral part of human flight to Mars. Engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center want to make sure the astronauts on board remain safe.

In December, Orion took its first unmanned, two-orbit test flight and now one of the most important pieces of the capsule is here in the Rocket City.

"Glad to see this hardware here -- it's good for the whole nation and particularly our north Alabama region," said Terry Abel, who is a project manager for Lockheed Martin.

Larry Gagliano, project manager for Orion explains the importance of the heat shield.

"The purpose of the heat shield here is to protect the crew module from the excessive heat when it comes back through the atmosphere," said Gagliano.

Before its flight to space, the shield was a golden color.  However, after traveling 3,600 miles into the atmosphere with temperatures reaching 4,000 degrees, the shield is now charred black. That's just one of many parts that will now be analyzed to ensure safe flight when Orion takes astronauts to space.

"When we have the rare opportunity to get a piece of hardware back then we go in and take some more measurements of this piece of hardware, compare it to our computer models and see how well we did," said Gagliano.