When NASA is ready to send humans to Mars, it will do so using the Orion spacecraft, launched via a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. An unmanned test flight is scheduled for Thursday, December 4 at 7:05 am EST from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The Orion spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, will complete a 4.5 hour-long test flight at an altitude of 5,800 kilometers (3,600 miles), which is approximately 15 times the distance to the International Space Station. The heat shield will be tested, and the cabin will be filled with a suite of sensors to measure conditions inside the spacecraft. Orion will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of 32,190 km/h (20,000 mph), before deploying 11 parachutes and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. This is faster than any spacecraft has re-entered since the Apollo missions.
In addition to the technical aspects of the test flight, the spacecraft will also carry items meant to generate public interest in the Orion mission, as well as interest in space travel and STEM in general. Items include a microchip with over 1 million names submitted to NASA, poems, music recordings, and more. Orion will also be carrying iconic props from Sesame Street, in order to inspire children. These items include Ernie’s rubber ducky, Super Grover’s cape, Slimey the Worm, and Cookie Monster’s chocolate chip cookie.
Packing up the Sesame Street items that will fly on Orion. Photo credit: NASA
As of the time of this writing (Monday morning), there is a 60% chance that the launch will be a ‘Go’ during the 2 hour and 39 minute window. Though there is no precipitation currently expected on Thursday, that could change as the week goes on. Additionally, the launch could be scrubbed if wind speeds get too high. Because the spacecraft is going to be retrieved by the US Navy, NASA needs to ensure that conditions are favorable over in the Pacific as well.
Manned missions on Orion will take place after 2020. It will complete a few manned missions to asteroids before heading for its premier target: Mars. A total of four astronauts will be seated in the spacecraft during these missions.
The launch will be preceded by two press conferences: one on Tuesday at 1 pm EST, and another on Wednesday at 11 am EST. Coverage for the 7:05 am launch on Thursday will begin at 4:30 am EST. All of the events can be viewed on NASA TV or you can watch right here: