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NASA declares the Orion test successful, moving us one step closer to Mars

Orion test successful

The first step towards sending humans to Mars has been successfully taken. Earlier today, the Orion spacecraft executed a perfect launch, before spending four and a half hours in space. It then landed safely in the Pacific, completing one of the most important missions for the future of American space exploration in over 40 years.

As part of its test flight, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle reached a height of 3,600 miles, roughly 14 times further out from the Earth than the International Space Station. This marks the deepest that a vehicle designed to carry humans has gone into space since the final Apollo flight to the moon.

“Today’s flight test of Orion is a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space on our Journey to Mars,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said following the successful return to Earth of the spacecraft. “The teams did a tremendous job putting Orion through its paces in the real environment it will endure as we push the boundary of human exploration in the coming years.”

The test was initially scheduled for Thursday morning, but a problem with a valve forced a delay. Despite weather conditions that offered no better than a 40-percent chance of launch, the spacecraft lifted off this morning on top of the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy Rocket. The module crossed through the Van Allen belt twice, exposing itself high doses of radiation as part of the test. It then returned to Earth, reaching speeds of 20,000 mph and a temperature of over 4,000 Fahrenheit as it completed its 4.5 hour test flight.

The capsule successfully deployed its parachute upon re-entry, and landed on target in the Pacific Ocean, around 600 miles southwest of San Diego. It was then recovered by the US Navy, and will now make its way back to Kennedy Space Center.

The point of the mission was not only to test craft itself, but to gather data in preparation of manned missions. NASA is currently developing a new “Space Launch System” (SLS), which will soon be used to take the Orion spacecraft into orbit around the moon and beyond. Testing will continue for the rest of the decade, with manned missions currently scheduled to begin in 2021. That will all lead to a proposed Mars landing, tentatively scheduled for some point in the 2030s.

The next step though, is to analyze the data accumulated from this flight.

“We really pushed Orion as much as we could to give us real data that we can use to improve Orion’s design going forward,” Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager said. “In the coming weeks and months we’ll be taking a look at that invaluable information and applying lessons learned to the next Orion spacecraft already in production for the first mission atop the Space Launch System rocket.”

The next major test will be an unmanned flight of the Orion on top of the new SLS, which is expected at some point in 2018. That will then pave the way for the manned missions, including a return to the moon and trips to asteroids, before committing to the mission to Mars.

“I’m not sure Americans particularly grasp the significance of what’s going to happen,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the Los Angeles Times. “The most powerful nation in the world will be sending a spacecraft intended to carry humans farther than we’ve been in 40 years. We have not designed a spacecraft to do this since the Apollo era. So when we launch in December, it will be something that a whole generation of Americans have not seen.”

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