For an organization that was supposedly going the way of the dodo bird, NASA sure is in the news a lot lately. They’re announcing new solar sails experiments, working on tractor beams, and (maybe?) getting what funding they still have slashed some more. Well, here’s another NASA news item: an unmanned test flight of the Orion spacecraft in 2014, three years earlier than originally planned. Yes, it’s an unmanned flight, but one with great implications for future human deep space exploration. The Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) features a new Space Launch System (SLS), which the NASA press release says “will take astronauts farther into space than ever before, create U.S. jobs, and provide the cornerstone for America’s future human spaceflight efforts.”
Orion will be launched into space, orbit twice “to a high-apogee” (basically, to a good distance from the Earth), then bust back through the atmosphere at high speeds. Orion will launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla, and make a water landing after re-entry. The hope with EFT-1 is that it will provide essential data in figuring out how to design a spacecraft that can survive speeds upwards of 20,000 mph and return astronauts safely from greater distances outside of Earth’s orbit. NASA says it’s developing Orion to bring humans to the moon, asteroids, Mars, “and other destinations” via SLS, but being able to travel at high speeds and still re-enter safely is also a basic requirement for any kind of craft for manned deep space exploration.
It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride for space exploration and NASA nerds of late, but moving a test flight up instead of postponing it might show there is hope yet.