The race to Mars is on, and NASA’s mission to the Red Planet has just begun another important phase.
The backbone of the new Orion crew module was unloaded this week at the Kennedy Space Center. It will now be outfitted ahead of its inaugural unmanned flight in late 2018 to the Moon and back.
Orion is the spacecraft being developed by NASA to take humans to an asteroid and, ultimately, to Mars. And not only will it take humanity further than ever before, but it is also the most advanced and safest space vehicle ever created.
The crew module delivered to NASA is a pressure vessel, which will be the core of the manned quarters. It was constructed at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and flown to the center on NASA's fish-shaped Super Guppy plane.
NASA Super Guppy aircraft being prepped for flight. NASA
The pressure vessel is now in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building, where engineers from NASA and Lockheed Martin will install all the systems and subsystems necessary to fly Orion around the Moon. The system includes heat shields, thermal protection, propulsion, computers, plumbing, electrical, life support, parachutes, and much more.
The 2018 launch, called Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), will take seven days to circle the Moon and return to Earth. It will be the first flight of a human-rated craft in deep space since the Apollo missions over four decades ago, although on this test flight it will have no humans on board. Manned flights are expected to begin in the early 2020s.
The EM-1 pressure vessel is about 3 meters (10 feet) in height and 5 meters (16 feet) in diameter, and weighs over 1,200 kilograms (2,700 pounds). The capsule will be launched atop the Space Launch System (SLS), the expendable launch vehicle that will be used by NASA in the future to bring cargo and crew into orbit.
After EM-1 is completed, a crewed mission (EM-2) will explore an asteroid in near-Earth orbit. These tests will be fundamental in learning to overcome the challenges in the eventual journey to Mars.