Orion capsule is headed into deep space – and it takes hopes for commercial space travel and Mars with it

After a private rocket blew up just weeks ago, and as public enthusiasm for space travel surges, the Orion launch could make or break commercial space travel and hopes for exploration of Mars

Only recently, some experts’ hopes for pioneering space exploration had dwindled, as funding cuts and public boredom pulled down enthusiasm. The Orion space capsule, set to launch into deep space tomorrow, could resurrect those hopes – or it could dash them completely.

The launch is part of Nasa’s plans to develop the capabilities to land humans on an asteroid in 2025, and Mars in 2030 – plans that depend heavily on the input of private companies. If all goes well, in less than 20 years astronauts will leave Earth aboard an Orion spacecraft like the one launching tomorrow, and get out on Mars.

Orion has been built for Nasa by Lockheed Martin – an example of the increasing input from commercial companies into space exploration. The mission, called Exploration Flight Test-1, will not simply be a test of whether the capsule can fly properly – that, of course, can be fixed afterwards – but could also be an evaluation of the future of private firms’ involvement in space travel.

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Nasa's new clock will see its first outing at the Orion launch

Antares, an unmanned supply rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp, exploded just after setting off from Virginia in October. It was a spectacular and terrifying reminder of the dangers of space exploration – and of the key but controversial involvement of private, companies. The tragic crash of a Virgin Galactic space vehicle weeks later further compounded fears and concerns about for-profit space travel.

The recent Rosetta Mission, led by the European Space Agency, might have revived public interest in space exploration – but the Antares explosion could easily have thrown off support for private involvement.

Starting on Thursday morning, Nasa's new countdown clock — a large digital display, that can show video images like a stadium monitor, rather than the old analog one — will start to count down. The old clock had become an inseparable part of the Apollo missions, and Nasa hopes the new one can do the same for the old missions, which will have the same success.

"The new display is expected to become just as ingrained in the public's awareness as Orion progresses from uncrewed flight tests to deep space missions taking astronauts past the moon," says Nasa. "The display will also chronicle launch days for the private companies working with Nasa's Commercial Crew Program to launch astronauts from American soil to the International Space Station in 2017."

If the skies are clear, Orion – the first spacecraft built for deep space travel since the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s – will set off on Thursday from on top of a large rocket. The capsule will then make two orbits of Earth, about 3,600 miles above the planet – about 15 times higher than the International Space Station.

Falling back to Earth

It will then head back to Earth, flying at 20,000mph. That is when Orion will be truly put through its paces, to see whether the big heat shield – bigger than any other ever made – will be able to withstand the temperatures, which will reach nearly 4,000 degree Fahrenheit.

The capsule will be fitted with over 1000 different sensors, measuring pressures within the cabin, temperatures and acceleration. Those will be able to tell engineers whether humans could withstand the conditions in the capsule, and whether to launch a manned mission.

It will also test the abort system, which will allow humans to escape the launch in case anything does go wrong.

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Orion on its launchpad, in late November. The tower will be rolled away from the rocket and spacecraft 8 hours, 15 minutes before launch to allow the rocket to be fueled and for other launch operations to proceed

After the test, it’ll come to Earth and land in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 miles west of San Diego.

Those tests have already been conducted in controlled conditions in test facilities, but by flying the Orion craft in real space all of those conditions come together.

The expectation among those in the programme is that the tests will simply verify the current designs, Larry Price, the deputy programme manager, told The Independent, rather than leading to any major revisions of the plan. Initial data will be available as soon as the craft arrives back on Earth, with more rigorous information available to researchers within a couple of months.

The company has already started producing the vehicle that will take humans, and it is set to be welded together next year. More than half of the programme is already working with the expectation that another flight will launch in 2017 or 2018, Price said.

But there are still risks, including that the ship won’t be able to be recovered properly.

"The environment in the open ocean is a hazardous environment in and of itself," Jeremy Graeber, recovery director for the test flight, said during a press conference on Tuesday. "Nominally, the vehicle coming down should not pose any threats to the recovery forces, but it's a test flight, so there are systems that we are not 100 percent sure we know what position they're in once we're splashed down.

“We have high confidence that they'll be in great shape, but we've prepared ourselves in case there are some issues."

World is watching

Lockheed has been running its aviation business for over 100; its entry into the commercial space exploration market is far more recent. But the basic incentives of both are the same, Price says.

“We are a commercial company that owes performance to shareholders,” Price told The Independent. “We are driven by affordability, the desire to meet expectations and costs, schedule and technical performance.”

By giving contracts for space exploration to commercial companies, Nasa frees up its time to explore alternative missions. They can look to more challenging projects, like deep space and exploration.

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The Orion mission is the first part of Nasa's plan for a manned mission to Mars — which will depend heavily on private sector involvement

As an example, of the continuing importance of Nasa’s involvement, Price pointed to the possibility of an anomaly in deep space – if something went wrong on such a mission, those on board wouldn’t be able to come back in hours, but possibly days, weeks or months.

On missions such as that it is important to keep Nasa, and its accumulated resources and expertise, on board. But on others, such as the Orion mission, the private sector can ensure that costs and schedules are kept in line, while contributing towards the success of the mission.

And the public sector isn’t excluded from working on Orion, and the mission represents one of the most significant investments by the European Space Agency.

“It’s a situation where the whole world can take pride in it,” says Price, who is optimistic about the power of space travel to improve life on Earth.

Mission to Mars

By re-invigorating public appetite for space exploration, the scientific community will be able to get back to many of the missions that might have been abandoned or slowed down in recent years.

Nasa will use the technology as part of its broad mission to get to Mars and deep space, with the hope of answering the question of whether life exists beyond Earth.

 “Our next step is deep space, where Nasa will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon,” the agency says. “Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples.”

But there’s still plenty to explore nearby, too. The Moon remains largely unexplored – the discovery of ice points to water, which in turn means that it contains oxygen and hydrogen and could support life.

That, as well as new building techniques, could mean that humanity could build a space station on the Moon without having to take everything there, which would likely incur huge costs that would have stopped such missions.

And the success of the Rosetta mission has shown the possibility of exploring asteroids. The kind of work that mission has been doing – and other possibilities, like breaking up the asteroid – could point towards the origins of the solar system.

But the knowledge learned as space exploration picks back up again could also offer spectacular results. Asteroids have come remarkably close to Earth – if our planet was your head, then some have come as close as your elbow – and the tools and techniques developed as part of these missions could even save us if one were to come even closer.

“It’s very much not an end state,” says Price. “It’s a path.”

And those developments lead to new improvements in life on Earth.

“It’s been very rewarding – because space is fun, and we’re a bunch of nerds building machines that have never been built before,” says Price. “But we’re also solving problems that have never been solved before.”

But it’s still expensive – and while governments and the public are increasingly happy to fund such projects for now, those running them are aware that they still have to prove their worth.

“What we need to do is be responsible and produce return on that investment,” Price says. “There are such great returns: national pride, accomplishment, the development of technology that then spins off to improve life on Earth.”

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