NASA launches Orion spaceship to take humans to Mars

NASA’s Orion spacecraft is built to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before. Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities. And it’s NASA’s first new vehicle for space travel since the shuttle.

On December 4, 2014, Orion launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex Flight Test on the Orion Flight Test: a two-orbit, four-hour flight that tested many of the systems most critical to safety.

The Orion Flight Test will evaluate launch and high speed re-entry systems such as avionics, attitude control, parachutes and the heat shield.

In the future, Orion will launch on NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System. More powerful than any rocket ever built, SLS will be capable of sending humans to deep space destinations such as an asteroid and eventually Mars. Exploration Mission-1 will be the first mission to integrate Orion and the Space Launch System.

“The star of the day is Orion,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr., back for the second morning in a row. He called it “Day One of the Mars era.”

nasa orion
Image courtesy: NASA

NASA’s last trip beyond low-Earth orbit in a vessel built for people was the three-man Apollo 17 in December 1972. Orion will be capable of carrying four astronauts on long hauls and as many as six on three-week hikes.

The spacecraft is rigged with 1,200 sensors to gauge everything from heat to vibration to radiation. At 11 feet tall with a 16.5-foot base, Orion is bigger than the old-time Apollo capsules and, obviously, more advanced. NASA deliberately kept astronauts off this first Orion.

Dozens of astronauts, present and past, gathered at Kennedy for the historic send-off. One of them — Bolden — now leads NASA.

He called Mars “the ultimate destination of this generation,” but said his three young granddaughters think otherwise, telling him, “Don’t get hung up on Mars because there are other places to go once we get there.”

Sharanya Bharathwaj

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