After being delayed for 24 hours by high wind speeds (and, at one point, a boat sailing beneath its intended flight path), a Delta IV rocket launched from Nasa’s Cape Canaveral base in Florida today with an empty Orion capsule aboard. The mission – Exploration Flight Test One (EFT-1) – is the first major test of many more to come, as Nasa continues towards landing a human crew on Mars in 2030.
The Orion capsule represents the next generation of manned space flight from Nasa, which retired its Space Shuttle in 2011. Its design is similar to that of the famous Apollo missions – it sits above a large rocket, which burn through its fuel and falls away in stages until it deposits the capsule itself into orbit. It will spend 4.5 hours in space, loaded with sensors and ballast to mimic the weight of the astronauts and equipment that a future manned mission may carry, but the mission for today is to simply survive two orbits of Earth, one of which will loop up through the Van Allen Belt with a peak altitude of nearly 6,000km, and back again for splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Getting through the Van Allen Belt safely is one of the mission’s main objectives. It’s the band of radiation – from the solar wind and from cosmic rays – trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field, like iron filings scattered on a piece of paper lying on top of a bar magnet, and it poses a huge risk to any craft which sails through it, from satellites to rockets and everything in between. The sensors aboard Orion will be hoping to find that the radiation shielding on the capsule works as planned to protect both all of its electronic instruments and any future travellers aboard.
The data from today’s mission will go towards the next one, planned for three years from now. By then, Orion will be carried by Nasa’s next-generation rocket: the Space Launch System, a rocket even more powerful than the Delta IV (which is itself about ten years old, and insufficient for the kinds of missions Nasa’s planning for). The Delta IV manages 700,000 lbs of thrust; the SLS will manage as much as ten times that, while being capable of lifting a payload of more than 130 tonnes to low-Earth orbit compared to the Delta IV’s 26 tonnes.
The return to a capsule and rocket system instead of a reusable shuttle is for a good reason – we know it works in getting human crews to other worlds, and the modules can withstand much higher speeds on re-entry into the atmosphere when returning. And the similarities between Orion and the SLS to the Apollo spacecraft and its Saturn V lifter go beyond the practical, since this system is being designed to give Nasa the ability to take humans beyond mere low-Earth orbit and on to other worlds for years to come. An eventual mission to Mars in 2030 – landing a crew and then returning them, unlike some of the more outlandish colonisation schemes currently being hatched – will only happen if the other steps along the way go smoothly.
That means getting some humans safely into orbit and back again on a test flight sometime around 2021, and also achieving other goals throughout the course of the decade. That includes another Moon landing, a mission to intercept an asteroid as it passes Earth and study it, and even a mission to one of Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos. These missions will be taking place in conjunction with other unmanned ones, like the rover planned as the successor to Curiosity that will land on Mars in 2020 – it’ll be able to test some of the technologies that, it’s hoped, will ensure that astronauts who land there will be able to survive and return safely.
All of that is in the future, however, and thus contingent on the United States government still giving a damn about space exploration enough over the course of the next decade and a half. Space exploration is prestigious, but doing it with humans is extraordinarily expensive – and our ability to study the Solar System with robots has come on in leaps and bounds since Apollo. We no longer have to put humans inside spaceships because we can’t make computers as smart as human brains, as small as human brains. Who knows if putting humans inside Orion will look a boondoggle or not to the scientists, or public, of 2030?