CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.—NASA’s Kennedy Space Center here has been relatively quiet since the space shuttles retired three years ago. But now the site is bustling with media, top NASA officials are traveling to Florida, and engineers are busy readying the launchpad to blast off a brand-new spaceship. The cone-shaped Orion capsule is NASA’s next venture in human spaceflight, and it will eventually carry people to an asteroid or maybe Mars—if the U.S. can find the funding and political will.
No one will be riding Orion on Thursday, when it makes its maiden launch in a test flight from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:05 a.m. EST. This trial run will check out Orion’s basic design by launching it to an altitude of 5,800 kilometers (15 times farther from the Earth’s surface than the International Space Station) before it splashes down four hours later in the Pacific Ocean. “This is the first human-rated spacecraft that’s gone beyond low-Earth orbit in 42 years,” Mike Hawes, Orion program manager at Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft’s prime contractor, said Tuesday in a preflight NASA news conference. “It is a big deal.”
Orion is reminiscent of the Apollo capsules in its shape and design, but at 3.3 meters tall and 5 meters wide, it is about a third larger in size. It will eventually house two to six crewmembers for missions of up to 21 days and can attach to other space habitats for trips of longer duration.
During the roughly $370-million test flight, NASA engineers will be watching to make sure Orion’s heat shield, which uses a tweaked Apollo material layered over a new titanium skeleton, protects that capsule from the 4,000 degree F flames of reentry and that its other critical systems—computers, navigation controls, and parachutes, among others—work as planned. If all goes well, Orion will help put NASA back in the business of launching its own astronauts on home-grown spacecraft from American soil.
Since the space shuttles retired in 2011, U.S. astronauts have had to ride to space with the Russians. NASA is hoping commercial American companies can pick up the slack soon by ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station aboard private spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing. But to travel to destinations beyond the station’s perch in low-Earth orbit, NASA needs a new ride.
The Orion capsule is ultimately intended to travel atop a new rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS), which is still being developed. When the SLS flies (probably by 2018), it will be the most powerful booster yet, with 8.4-million pounds of thrust. That should be enough power to propel humans deeper into space than ever before. Yet where exactly Orion and SLS will go—and when—is not quite settled. NASA and the Obama administration want to send astronauts to visit a nearby asteroid in the mid-2020s, although that plan has come under fire from scientists and pundits who call it unexciting and scientifically unnecessary. However, the funding required for a more ambitious mission to Mars, say, or to establish a moon colony is more than NASA can expect to receive from a financially strapped Congress.
With the SLS still under construction, Orion will make its debut launch aboard the largest rocket currently flying, the Delta IV Heavy made by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin company United Launch Alliance. That booster will get Orion far enough into space that it will barrel back to Earth at 84 percent the velocity of a return trip from the moon—enough to put its heat shield through some serious paces. It will also take Orion beyond Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts; scientists are eager to see whether the capsule’s computers can withstand the potentially damaging energetic particles there. “Part of me hopes that everything is perfect,” said Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion program manager. “But really, in a flight test like this if there are subtleties in how the vehicle behaves with the environment, or subtleties with how systems actually behave with one another during flight, my hope is that we find that on this test flight. We want to discover things that are beyond our modeling capability and beyond our expertise so we can learn it and fix it.”
Regardless of how well this flight goes, Orion is not scheduled to fly again for four more years, until SLS is ready for its first launch. It will not make its first crewed flight until at least 2021. The long delay is the result of a tight budget. “It’s not a matter of our ability to build these capsules,” Geyer said. “I wish it would go faster.”
This launch might have come earlier had the Orion program been fully funded since it was first conceived in 2005 during the President George W. Bush administration. For the thousands of space fans who will gather at the Cape to watch the fiery launch Thursday morning, however, NASA’s new era is better late than never.