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Before mission to Mars, Orion faces obstacles on Earth

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Orion poised for flight. Photo courtesy NASA

NASA’s new spacecraft Orion launches for the first time Thursday.

NASA says the unmanned test flight from Cape Canaveral Airforce Station is a first step toward putting astronauts on Mars.

But Orion faces many obstacles on Earth before a mission to Mars.


For the first time since the shuttle program ended in 2011 a spacecraft designed for humans is poised for flight at a launch pad on Florida’s Space Coast.

Orion’s journey began slowly in darkness last month.

The 72-foot spacecraft, finally fully assembled, emerged from a Kennedy Space Center processing building dating to the Apollo program. It was transported at a walking pace, escorted by a minor parade of vehicles.

The move to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station lasted most of the night. There, a crane hoisted the capsule atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. The rocket will blast Orion farther into space than any other spacecraft designed for humans in more than 40 years.

Mike Hawes of Lockheed Martin addressed reporters before Orion’s move.

“We have folks actually talking about moving humans off of our home planet, and when we have those footprints on Mars I certainly will believe, and I hope many of you will believe, this was that first step that got us started on that path.”

Thursday’s four-and-a-half-hour mission will test Orion’s most crucial systems like its heat shield and parachutes. The spacecraft will rocket into space 15 times farther than the International Space Station. It’ll orbit the Earth twice, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

But the mission comes during a time of transition for American space exploration. Three years after the shuttle program ended American astronauts now fly with Russia to the International Space Station. NASA eventually plans to rely on private contractors, but that won’t happen at least until 2017. Orion’s first manned mission isn’t scheduled until 2021.

John Logsdon of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University says NASA’s ambition to go to Mars comes at a different time than when man landed on the moon.

“When we undertake space exploration in the 21st century it’s going to be on the basis of a social judgment that this is something that humans or at least enough humans want to do for kind of inspirational and cultural reasons, not purely scientific but just part of human nature, the desire to see what’s over the next hill.”

And he says the Apollo program really wasn’t about space exploration.

“Yes, we sent 12 people to the surface of the moon, and they did some exploration. But it was really an exercise in political messaging, telling the world, telling ourselves and telling the Soviet Union that we were the most powerful and most effective society.”

NASA funding today is a quarter of what it was then. A report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General, an oversight agency, finds lack of funding is putting Orion at risk. For instance some life support capabilities won’t be fully tested before the spacecraft’s first manned mission.

The space agency is vague about its plans for Orion beyond 2021. The program includes no surface landers, meaning if astronauts make it to Mars they’ll have no means of landing there. And astronauts can survive on Orion only for up to 21 days, not long enough for a mission to Mars. NASA envisions Orion as part of a deep space transportation system, but there’s no money for that.

Mark Kirasich, deputy manager of NASA’s Orion program, says in the meantime the spacecraft can be used in other missions.

“The most immediate mission that NASA is considering is what we call an asteroid retrieval mission, where we rendezvous with an asteroid that has been captured by a robotic spacecraft and put in the vicinity of the moon, and Orion travels to it and rendezvous with it and samples some of that asteroid.”

Before Orion, the Constellation program was intended to send man back to the moon, but it was cancelled. Some lawmakers are calling for more accountability for this program, including Florida Congressman Bill Posey, who represents the Space Coast.

“Just like Apollo had a clear mission from President Kennedy, remember? Well you know, we plan to put a man on the moon and bring him safely home within a decade.”

He says some in Congress are skeptical of NASA’s bold but nebulous ambitions.

“That’s what we want now. We want another clear mission plan.”

But NASA’s Mark Kirasich says Orion is designed for versatility.

“The whole purpose behind Orion is for humans to explore space. Mars is our ultimate goal, but Orion can support a variety of deep space missions beyond low Earth orbit.”

A first manned mission to Mars is planned for the early 2030s.

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Amy Green

About Amy Green

Reporter and Producer

Amy Green covers the environment and climate change at WMFE News. She is an award-winning journalist and author whose extensive reporting on the Everglades is featured in the book MOVING WATER, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and podcast DRAINED, available wherever you get your podcasts. Amy’s ... Read Full Bio »