The NASA spacecraft designed to handle the first manned mission to Mars underwent its first high-orbit test today and passed it with flying colors. Orion traveled 3,600 miles from Earth during the test, marking the first time since the Apollo 17 moon mission in 1972 that a vehicle designed to carry humans went beyond low Earth orbit.
This is very exciting work even though its fruition is still a long way off. I’d love to live to see it carry out its ultimate objective of taking Earthlings to Mars. That’s the stuff of the real science fiction I devoured as a teen and young adult and have remained interested in, more or less continuously, my whole life.
There are a number of intermediate missions for Orion before she transports Homo sapiens to the Red Planet, of course. It’s an ambitious plan in some ways, though critics have objected that it’s too slow-paced and modest to be worthy of the mission’s multi-hundred-billion-dollar price tag.
But Orion has already begun to restore America’s — and humanity’s — passionate dream of reaching the stars. As NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during live commentary on the perfect test flight, “America has driven a golden spike as it crosses a bridge into the future.” The analogy to the completion of the east-west rail lines in the Frontier West is not lost. During this mission, most of the system’s mission-critical components were thoroughly tested and gigabytes of valuable data gathered for analysis. While this mission was unmanned, it was still a vital first step, resulting in the successful test of something like 55% of the total technology package needed for manned flight operations.
With an anti-science Congress peering blindly into its myoposcope, and grim economic reality at every turn, it’s not clear that NASA will be able to line up the funding it needs for the entire Orion program. Right now, the next flight for the mission isn’t scheduled until 2017 at the earliest and probably won’t happen before 2018. Not because of science limitations but because spending money in space is still a difficult sell despite the billions of dollars in commercial value spun off from previous space efforts.
It is, however, encouraging that the NASA exploration budget that finances Orion is one of the few non-defense budget accounts for which House Republicans have proposed an increase from President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2015 request.
I recognize the problem and I appreciate it. But I think the answer lies not in pruning back space projects but in fostering cooperative undertakings with other space agencies, particularly the European Space Agency (ESA) which is enjoying huge success with the Rosetta mission. We have long since passed the time when nationalistic interests should hold sway in the exploration of space; these need to be Earth missions, humanity-owned-and-operated. I’ve long thought that creating a functional unit of the United Nations to carry out space exploration would go a long way toward addressing a number of issues plaguing national programs. But I expect that’s just another one of my personal windmills.
Meanwhile, I say, “Go, Orion!” and turn my eyes once again skyward if only to dream of the time in the 2030s when Earthlings set foot on the mysterious planet that has held such fascination for science-fiction writers and fans for a century or more.