After surviving a near-cancellation four years ago, NASA’s Orion capsule is set for one of the most important moments of its relatively short existence.
The spacecraft, which will hopefully one day bring astronauts to the surface of Mars, is ready for a test flight that will see whether or not it can handle a 20,000 mph re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. This flight is scheduled for 7:05 a.m. ET Thursday. According to a report from the Detroit Free Press, during this time the unmanned capsule is set to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. This will instigate a two orbit, four-and-a-half hour mission called Exploration Flight Test-1. This test is one of NASA’s most important missions this year, as it could be the first step towards landing astronauts on Mars.
While it is going to be at least seven years before astronauts actually climb aboard the Orion capsule, NASA scientists are desperately hoping that the test flight goes well. This is due to the fact that the agency has invested nine billion dollars and eight years into the project. If the flight is a success, it will be a great morale boost to the team, showing that the efforts and money spent were well spent. A successful flight could also help cement the future of the spacecraft as well. Yet, even if the mission does travel 3,600 miles into space (higher than any human-carrying craft in 40 years) and returns safely back to Earth, the program could still experience problems.
There are many obstacles standing in Orion’s way, such as political uncertainty, technical challenges, and proper funding. None of these bode well for the overweight spacecraft. After the test flight, the capsule will depend on the huge Space Launch System rocket NASA is developing for rides. Its first test launch is set for 2018, where it will take off from Kennedy Space Center, and the first manned flight could be possible by 2021. The head of the Orion program has stated that they have always known the risks of deep space travel, and the recent explosion of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket hasn’t changed the date of Orion’s December launch. However, if funding does not come through, and there is no increase to flat budgets, it seems that getting astronauts to Mars by the 2030’s (the current goal) will not become a reality.