4 Dec 2014

Orion’s launch – another giant leap in human space flight

America hasn’t sent a spacecraft designed to carry humans this far into space since the Apollo programme ended in 1972.

In that sense, today’s small step – the first orbital test of the Orion probe – is a giant leap for the US human space flight program: it marks a return to US astronauts voyaging independently in space.

And the ambition for Orion, as laid out in a speech by President Obama in 2010, is great. The programme intends to carry astronauts to land on an asteroid, next to orbit Mars, and then ultimately land on it.

NASA Prepares For Orion Test Launch

But in another sense, Orion is a little more prosaic. Since it cancelled the space shuttle programme in 2011, the US has had no vehicle to ferry astronauts into orbit. To continue its participation in the International Space Station, it relies on the Russians and their Soyuz system.

While the US continues working on exiting new space plane technology, Orion is conceptually the same as the tin cans that carried the first men into orbit more than 50 years ago.

Today’s test will look at key stages in a successful launch: separation from the different Delta IV rocket stages and, crucially, how the capsule’s heat shields and parachutes work to return a future crew safely to earth.

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