A coming test flight of NASA’s next-generation spacecraft will take humans farther into space than they’ve been since missions to the moon ceased. The space agency just posted a video detailing the test, scheduled for 2014.
NASA will be testing the Orion spacecraft, the vehicle that’s intended to take humans back to the moon, to Mars and beyond. The test, officially called the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), will send an unmanned crew capsule 3,600 miles up. By comparison, the International Space Station orbits the Earth at an altitude of 250 miles. Kutcher — along with all other Virgin Galactic passengers — will only go as high as 68 miles.
The Orion will eventually use a new booster rocket called the Space Launch System, but for this test it’ll instead use a Delta IV booster, which will separate from the Orion capsule after launch. Once the capsule completes a low earth orbit, its remaining rocket will ignite and push it to a distance from the Earth no human has been to since 1972.
Soon after that, the capsule will head back to re-enter the atmosphere for a test of the heat shielding. Then it’ll splash down in the ocean just like the Apollo capsules of yesteryear, ultimately recovered with help from the U.S. Navy.
The flight will be an important test of the Orion capsule. NASA hopes it will prove the new ship is suitable for ferrying astronauts to distant destinations such as the moon and Mars. It will also mark an important milestone for manned spaceflight.
Private space companies like SpaceX have robbed NASA of much of the spotlight in recent years, and the progress of the Orion program reasserts NASA’s commitment to ambitious space exploration.
Are you excited by the prospect of possible manned missions to the moon and Mars? Or would you rather hop on board Virgin Galactic? Have your say in the comments.
BONUS: The Top Space Stories of 2011
1. The Space Shuttle Era Ends
When Space Shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center just before dawn on July 21, 2011, it marked the end of NASA's Space Shuttle program. The shuttle was the space agency's No. 1 space vehicle for 30 years, with numerous successes under its belt -- notably the deployment and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope and construction of the International Space Station.
The shuttles themselves, however, were notoriously more complex and expensive than they were ever intended to be. They also unfortunately suffered from reliability issues, leading to the tragic destruction of two shuttles, Challenger and Columbia.
Despite its issues, the shuttle continued to serve well past its sell-by date, becoming a pop-culture icon along the way. In its last year of operation, the shuttle also finished one of its key tasks: complete assembly of the International Space Station. It's certainly earned its retirement, which the orbiters spend in numerous museums throughout the country.