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NASA's first Orion test flight is the first step to a human mission to Mars

By Andrew Fazekas
IF all goes as planned Thursday, NASA will test its first built-for-humans space capsule since the Apollo moon missions four decades ago. Many in the space community believe this is the first step on the long road to finally get humans to Mars and beyond.

NASA’s unmanned Orion capsule will undergo its first test flight when it launches on a four and-half hour trip that will take it twice around Earth. It will flying out to 6,000 km from the surface of our planet – the farthest a spacecraft destined to carry astronauts has gone since we last went to the moon in 1972.

Orion is really America’s next generation space exploration vehicle, replacing the retired space shuttle fleet, that will allow a crew of four to explore the solar system, while at the same time also having emergency abort capability and the ability to make a safe re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere.

While Orion may look like the old Apollo-era capsules, it’s only the shape that is the same. It is roomier, able to even accommodate as many as 6 astronauts for short 2- to 4-week jaunts and is filled to the brim with state-of-the-art technology that has gone into everything from the thrusters to the environmental control systems.

The main goal for this week’s $370-million test flight will be for the 1,000-plus onboard computer sensors to monitor how well all its systems function – most importantly its heat shield, which is designed to protect the vehicle from the 2200 C temperatures as it hits the atmosphere at speeds over 37,000 km/h. Measuring some five meters across, the shield is the largest ever built and must be able to withstand the extreme conditions that the spaceship will have to endure on future deep space missions that will have it returning at much higher speeds than spacecrafts coming back from low Earth orbit space stations.

Another vital step in testing will be the parachute system, which will be responsible for slowing Orion down to less than 30 km/h just before it splashes into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja, California.

NASA engineers will then pour over all the data collected and further tweak Orion’s design for its next uncrewed trip, now expected to occur sometime in late 2017 or 2018, when it will go to the Moon and back.

At this point, NASA is looking to have the first astronaut crews onboard Orion in 2021, but there is much debate as to where that mission will take them. If the space agency sticks to the Obama administration’s plan, that destination will be an asteroid, which would have been already robotically captured and tugged into lunar orbit. Or perhaps, as some are suggesting, the first human testing of the new spacecraft may simply be a repeat swing around the moon.

Whatever cosmic port of call they choose, Orion will need a rocket with much more power than anything that currently exists. So NASA is also building a new rocket system called the Space Launch System (SLS) – which the agency is calling the most powerful ever built. This giant rocket, nearly 100 meters high, will have the capability to lift anywhere between 70 to 130 metric tons into orbit, up to 20 per cent more thrust then Apollo’s Saturn V rockets had in the 1960’s. SLS is expected to be ready in time to lift Orion to the moon by 2018.
But when will we be heading to Mars? Current plans call for the first human mission to blast off for the Red Planet sometime between 2030 and 2035.

However, there will have be development of many more technologies to pull off that audacious goal.
Since Orion only has the living space of a large SUV, there will have to be extra habitation modules, radiation shields and supplies, designed and built for the six-month long trip to get to the planet. Also, landers will have to be developed that could touch down gently on the hard surface of Mars, which the current Orion capsule is not designed to do.

For many, the pace with which space exploration is progressing continues to be slow – and it looks like it might continue to be so – both because of technological and economic limitations.

But now that the private space race is underway, folks like Elon Musk at SpaceX may very well take their partnerships with NASA from the current low-Earth taxi service they provide to the next level and join in on missions to explore the solar system. Could this speed things up?

If that happens, all bets may be off as to when we might see humans plant their boots in the red soils of Mars. 

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