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NASA's first Orion launch will test tech that could take humans to Mars

Sharon Gaudin | Dec. 4, 2014
NASA will take a huge step this week in its efforts to build the technology, rockets and spacecraft needed to send astronauts to Mars.

The sensors also will monitor stress on Orion's heat shield, which is the world's largest, measuring at 16.5 feet in diameter. The heat shield will bear the brunt of the scorching temperatures on reentry, as the spacecraft shifts from 20,000 mph to 0 mph in 11 minutes.

Thursday's launch will also be the first test of Orion's Launch Abort system, which is designed to pull the spacecraft and its crew out of harm's way if there is trouble with the rocket during launch. Engineers will only activate the jettison motor during this first test flight. The entire system will not be activated.

"We are beginning a new mission," said Mark Geyer, Orion's program manager. "It's the beginning of exploring beyond Earth orbit, and Orion is a key part of that... This is in the same category as starting the space shuttle missions and starting Apollo."

While this launch will test many systems that will be needed for a deep space flight, it won't test the heavy-lift rocket known as the Space Launch System. The rocket, designed to be the most powerful ever built, isn't expected to be used until Orion's second uncrewed test flight, scheduled for 2017 or 2018.

Orion will carry what NASA called major advances in computers, electronics, life support and propulsion. Each of those systems will be monitored and evaluated during Thursday's flight.

"Before we can send astronauts into space on Orion, we have to test all of its systems," NASA said on its website. "There's only one way to know if we got it right: Fly it in space."

Orion, eventually is expected to travel farther from Earth than any other human-carrying spacecraft. Scientists believe the spacecraft is their best bet for taking astronauts into deep space.

"The first future human mission to Mars and those that follow will require the ingenuity and dedication of an entire generation," NASA noted. "It's a journey worth the risks. We take the next step on that journey this Thursday... Orion will open the space between Earth and Mars for exploration by astronauts. This proving ground will be invaluable for testing capabilities future human Mars missions will need."

Orion's first crewed flight is not expected until 2021.


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