I got goosebumps watching Orion liftoff today at dawn. This is it, people, this is the future of American spaceflight. It’s surreal watching the spacecraft that may someday take people to Mars—the mid-2030s, says NASA—liftoff and leave Earth behind.
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I got up bright and early this morning to watch the first test flight of the Orion spacecraft, which was scheduled for 7:05am. At 7:45 I was still watching the feed, pacing anxiously around, wondering how much longer I could wait before being late for work. First, a boat got too close to the launch area at Cape Canaveral in Florida, and then the winds kicked up, blowing in at about 24 mph, which is a bit too much for a safe launch. The launch was held, then rescheduled, then held again, and then rescheduled. They started the final four-minute countdown at around 7:43, but an automatic scrap due to wind stopped it again at just over three minutes. Man, this anticipation is rough.
Meteorologists expected the winds to die down, but the wait really plays up that tension between the desperate desire for this launch to go off without a hitch and the goal for everything to be as safe as possible, especially given the recent rocket and spacecraft disasters.
Tomorrow, NASA plans to launch their newest spacecraft Orion. Since its inception, one of the aims has always been that this could be the vessel that takes humans farther than we’ve ever been before, and the space agency made that official, announcing plans to send a manned mission to Mars in the next few decades.
Science fiction has always had a fascination with walking on the surface of other worlds, and we accomplished that in 1969 when Neil Armstrong became the first person touch down on the moon. Though mechanical feet of various kinds have visited other celestial bodies, no flesh-and-blood human has walked anywhere but Earth since Apollo 17 in 1972.
When President Obama officially canceled the Constellation Program, one era of U.S. spaceflight ended and another one began—both Obama and NASA made a case for using private companies for the transport of humans and cargo into space. He also assured citizens that the space agency wasn’t about to retire entirely from the game, and dangled the carrot of Orion—their next manned spacecraft intended to bring humans beyond low-Earth orbit. Orion is “Apollo on steroids,” and NASA is currently preparing for its first test flight.
This test flight would have been a big deal no matter what, but after last week’s catastrophes, the stakes feel higher than ever.
NASA’s next manned spacecraft — its first new model in 40 years — is called the Orion, or “Apollo on steroids.” Presuming that it passes the various stages of unmanned flight tests, this may be the spacecraft that brings humans to Mars or to the asteroid belt for mining. To put it mildly, there are a lot of eggs in Orion’s basket, so much so that not even the government shutdown halted work on the craft. Even Universe Today dubbed 2014 “the Year of Orion.” Despite its importance, there are higher-priority matters, such as national security. Orion’s first exploration flight test, due to take place in September, has been pushed back to allow the U.S. Air Force to launch two Space Situational Awareness satellites.
Despite the government shutdown, NASA was able to continue working on the Orion, NASA’s next manned spacecraft. Before any humans step aboard the ship sometimes referred to as “Apollo on steroids,” the space agency will continue working on the ship in preparation for its debut test flight in September of next year.
Next fall, a Delta IV heavy rocket will launch the Lockheed Martin-designed Orion capsule from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Exploration Flight Test is designed to assess a number of critical functions, including the capsule’s heat shield, which will be tested as it plunges into Earth’s fiery atmosphere at speeds of 20,000 mph. Orion’s heat shield, like Apollo’s features “Avcoat,” which essentially removes the heat of reentry and stores it in a honeycomb matrix. This latest model will be the largest in the world, roughly 17 feet across. The flight will also test other structural components of the craft, as well as avionics and software. Ideally the results will allow developers to assess risks and ways to mitigate them.