From our friends at the Scotsman:
RESEMBLING the Apollo capsules that took man the Moon more than four decades ago, Nasa yesterday showed off the £320 million spacecraft from which astronauts will one day make their first foray on to Mars.
Orion, the most advanced spacecraft ever built, will take crews further and faster than ever before, carrying them on years-long voyages deep into the cosmos on what Nasa directors describe as missions to “surpass the boundaries within which humanity has been held”.
“This represents a new era of exploration beyond our planet, allowing us to go further than we have ever gone before. The future is here now,” said Bob Cabana, the director the Kennedy Space Centre (KSC), Florida.
Orion’s first flight, scheduled for 2014, will be an unmanned test mission known as EFT-1 – Exploration Flight Test 1. It would travel 3,600 miles from Earth – 15 times further than the International Space Station’s altitude. It will return through the atmosphere at 20,000mph for an ocean splashdown.
Because of the design, the speed and the angle at which it will re-enter, it will endure temperatures of up to 4,000F, hotter than any human spacecraft has encountered since the Moon missions of the 1960s and 70s.
EFT-1, designed to test the spacecraft’s performance, will be launched aboard a Delta IV heavy rocket. But by 2017, Nasa expects to have its new Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever created, ready to thrust Orion further into space on a second uncrewed mission.
Manned voyages to celestial destinations beyond lower Earth orbit will follow as soon as 2019, possibly starting with a lunar flyby and progressing to more ambitious destinations including an asteroid by 2025, Lagrange points – spots where the gravitational pull between the Earth and the Moon reach equilibrium – and ultimately the Red Planet in the 2030s.
Around 500 guests were on hand yesterday to welcome Orion to KSC, following several years of assembly in Louisiana. They included Florida senator Bill Nelson, a former shuttle astronaut, who led the charge in Congress to rescue and revitalize America’s flailing space programme following a period of political and budgetary turmoil.
“Isn’t this beautiful. The dream is alive,” he said, standing beside the spacecraft, which will undergo 18 months of further structural work including installation of its heatshield and avionics.
“We are going to Mars without question. We still need to refine how we are going to go there. We’ve got the develop a lot of new technologies, we’ve got to figure out how and where we stop along the way,” he said, reflecting concerns raised by Nasa veterans, including Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, who has criticised the Obama administration for having tasked Nasa with building a spaceship before exactly clarifying where it will go and when.
The vehicle’s arrival coincided with the space centre’s 50th birthday and represented what Nasa’s deputy chief, Lori Garver, described as “a magnificent golden anniversary present”.
Buildings and facilities used during America’s first 50 years of spaceflight are now being refurbished to accommodate the next generation of spaceships.