NASA to launch test of Orion spacecraft

Commentary

OK, so for some reason this story on the web has been headlined as more along the lines of “NASA officially announces manned mission to Mars”. 

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The Orion spacecraft on top of the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle 

The official NASA press release says in the first paragraph:

The first flight test of Orion, NASA’s next-generation spacecraft that will send astronauts to an asteroid and onward to Mars, is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 4. NASA will host a series of news conferences and flight test commentary on NASA Television, as well as media events at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

source press release /NASA


Yes the Orion rocket is designed to manned but it seems a bit extreme to say that this specific event is related to a direct manned mission to Mars. This is a test flight for a capsule and related technologies.  This is a long process that depends on lots of factors before the actual headline “ NASA announces manned mission to Mars, launching next year” becomes real.

In another press statement, NASA notes that:

During its 4.5 hour trip, Orion will orbit Earth twice and travel to an altitude of 3,600 miles into space. 

The flight is designed to test many of the elements that pose the greatest risk to astronauts and will provide critical data needed to improve Orion’s design and reduce risks to future mission crews.

Infographic showing the stages of the Orion spacecraft test flight. image: NASA blogs


So this is really just a small step on a possible trip to Mars or somewhere. Does NASA have a specific time frame for human explorations? Will they go to an asteroid first? 

According to an article in sciencealert.com.au NASA is hoping to get to Mars by 2030. That is only 15 years away. But what are the actual plan? the specifics? 

OK, so now I’ve found a more specific discussion from NASA about Mars missions

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NASA’s Mars plan. image: NASA

The most interesting aspect is here 

Our next step is deep space, where NASA will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon.

 Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples. 

This experience in human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit will help NASA test new systems and capabilities, such as Solar Electric Propulsion, which we'll need to send cargo as part of human missions to Mars. 

Beginning in FY 2018, NASA's powerful Space Launch System rocket will enable these "proving ground" missions to test new capabilities. 

Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown.

source

But this still seems pretty vague for a 15 year plan for Mars.  There still seem to be significant hurdles to cross. The first thing that comes to mind is the thought of 4 astronauts being in the Orion spacecraft for something like 6 months. OK again just looking at the specifics, there is some suggestion it may only take 40 days to get to Mars using an argon plasma-based VASIMR

Anyway, here is a PDF from NASA which gives an overview of Orion spacecraft. 

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Artist impression of the Orion Spacecraft above the Earth. image: blogs/NASA


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