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Clarkson alumnus to lead first deep space flight since Apollo era

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POTSDAM — Since the Apollo era, deep space exploration has been put on hold because of changes in national priorities and funding.

This fall, Clarkson alumnus Michael L. Sarafin will have a major role in NASA’s return to deep space.

Mr. Sarafin will be flight director at the Mission Control Center in Houston and responsible for Orion’s Exploration Flight Test-1 from start to finish.

“It’s the first flight of a brand new program,” he said.

The Orion program began in 2005, after national policy allowed NASA again to pursue exploration of deep space, according to Mr. Sarafin.

He joined the program two years ago.

Orion is the name of a spacecraft that’s been in a final assembly and testing phase at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Fla., for about a year. Once complete in November, the spacecraft will go to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 37 for more tests within a month of the actual launch.

Mr. Sarafin said that while there’s no set date for the launch, it probably will happen in late November or early December. He said the 4½-hour unmanned test flight will include two orbits around Earth, one at a low orbit about 200 miles up and one 3,600 miles above Earth, which is 10 times higher than a space station.

“This mission is really to test the design of Orion to make sure it’s safe for humans to travel deep into space,” Mr. Sarafin said.

He said the design is much different from the design in the Apollo era.

“The technology is up to date and the heat shield is a brand new design,” he said. “Also, it’s a larger capsule that can fly four astronauts into space instead of three.”

NASA also will test its high-energy return to Earth at 20,000 miles per hour.

Mr. Sarafin said that if the flight is successful, they will do another unmanned test flight that will last about two weeks.

Then, if successful, they will be ready to send humans into space in Orion.

“Based on funding, we probably won’t be sending humans until 2021,” he said.

Mr. Sarafin said if this fall’s test flight is successful, it will be a highlight of his career.

He’s from Herkimer, and graduated from Clarkson in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering.

“I was in the first class to graduate in their aeronautical program because it was a new program,” he said. “The engineering program established the foundation for everything I needed to learn for my career.”

The test flight mission’s cost is $375 million, and according to Mr. Sarafin, that’s on top of what the program receives annually.

He said that although there are several things that could go wrong, it’s his and his team’s job to be prepared and to ensure a smoothly executed mission.

“It’s an important mission,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing Orion fly.”

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