Newspaper article International New York Times

NASA Sees Orion Capsule as Step to a Mars Landing

Newspaper article International New York Times

NASA Sees Orion Capsule as Step to a Mars Landing

Article excerpt

If the Orion test flight succeeds Thursday, it will be the first time since 1972 that NASA has launched an astronaut capsule to soar beyond low Earth orbit.

For the first time since Apollo 17 returned from the moon in 1972, NASA is scheduled to loft an astronaut capsule on Thursday to soar beyond low Earth orbit.

No one will be aboard this flight test of the new capsule, Orion, but NASA hopes it is the first step toward human exploration of the solar system, including an eventual landing on Mars. Orion's first manned mission is planned for the early 2020s.

"Thursday is the beginning of that journey," Mark Geyer, Orion's program manager, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Orion, which looks like a larger version of the cone-shaped Apollo capsule, is sitting atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Liftoff is scheduled for 7:05 a.m. Thursday, minutes after sunrise. In case of bad weather, the launching can be pushed back by up to two hours and 39 minutes.

The rocket's second stage should push the 11-foot-long Orion into an elliptical orbit that reaches 3,600 miles above the Earth's surface on its second orbit. (By contrast, the International Space Station is about 250 miles from Earth.)

Orion will then re-enter Earth's atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour, close to the speeds of a capsule returning from the moon, and temperatures on its heat shield will approach 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

At the end of the four-and-a-half-hour flight, it will splash down in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 miles off the coast of Baja California, and will be pulled from the water by an amphibious Navy ship, the Anchorage. The capsule will be trucked back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for closer examination.

The flight, estimated to cost $375 million, will provide a full- scale test of the performance of Orion's parachutes, heat shield and other systems, with 1,200 sensors recording data.

While the capsule will not be carrying any people, it will be taking mementos and artifacts. They include a small sample of lunar soil, part of a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil and several artistic works, like poems by Maya Angelou and a recording of the Mars movement from Gustav Holst's "The Planets. …

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