Orion’s journey makes history. Sights set on Mars

NASA’s Orion, the long-awaited successor to the iconic Space Shuttle, took flight early Friday morning, circled the Earth, and then landed safely in the Pacific Ocean. In the span of about four hours, the successful mission ushered in a new era of American space exploration with an ambitious goal: to put a human being on Mars by the year 2020.

“I have to admit, I teared up a bit,” said Michelle Nichols, an educator for NASA programs at the Adler Planetarium in downtown Chicago. Nichols and other Adler experts offered commentary to a small but devoted crowd of space enthusiasts who watched the new craft scale the morning skies over Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the planetarium’s expansive theater screen.

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Orion ushers in a new era of American spaceflight. This video, filmed from a live projection at the Adler Planetarium, shows the first moments of liftoff.

“It looks good. It looks healthy. We saw steady internal pressure [during the launch], which is good for future launches,” said Steve Agid, the official commentator of the United Launch Alliance, via Telelink.

The ULA represents a joint venture between American aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing that handles launches under contract from the federal government. Lockheed also built Orion and has been working towards this day since 2004, when then-President George W. Bush tried to revive the faltering American space program by stating his intention to send humans past the Moon to Mars.

Nicholas explained the importance of today’s launch in the context of NASA’s ongoing mission.

“It’s the first time that all of the Orion parts are working together,” she said. In 2018, NASA is preparing to send up a more technologically sophisticated but still unmanned Orion that will scope out the 2020 path to Mars, she said.

Orion’s journey into the history books hasn’t always been a smooth ride. It took 10 years to bring the craft to fruition; the primary catalyst was the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, which drew widespread attention to and scrutiny of NASA’s aging fleet. Budget cuts, regime changes within NASA, and the commercial encroachment of private space exploration entities like SpaceX further hampered progress. On Thursday, NASA enthusiasts and astronomers the world over breathed a sigh of disappointment when heavy winds scrapped that day’s launch.

Friday’s launch however, went off without a hitch. Around 11 a.m. EST, the spacecraft ended its picture-perfect flight when it splashed down gently into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja, California.

Above Photo: An artist’s rendering of the spacecraft Orion preparing to dock with the International Space Station. Source: NASA.