While Elon Musk brainstorms how to be the first to land boots on Mars, NASA is still working away on its own plan, and it all starts at the moon.
The space agency’s Orion spacecraft won’t be shooting straight to the Red Planet. The spacecraft, which will be orbiting the moon on a test flight (sans humans) called Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) in 2019, was built to go from there to asteroids to Mars and beyond. NASA scientists believe we need to do this Mars thing in phases, or else something could go disastrously wrong—and in space, nobody can hear you scream.
While other unmanned spacecraft have ventured much deeper into space, at its longest distance of 270,000 miles away from Earth (which slightly outdistances the Apollo missions), Orion will be the first crew-capable ship to fly that far. The solar-energy-powered ship will spend 26 days making a lunar round trip that includes a week spent in a lunar elliptical orbit and the four days it takes to rocket from our planet to its satellite and back. Solar energy that is absorbed by its solar panels and converted into electricity will keep it from crashing and burning.
Orion orbited Earth twice on its first unmanned test flight, riding on a Delta IV Heavy rocket since the Space Launch System (SLS) that it will launch from when this is for real is not yet ready to fire things into space. It zoomed back to Earth and straight into the Pacific Ocean after 4 1/2 hours out there. Among the parts of the craft that NASA tested on this flight, and will continue to test on the next one, were the computers, parachutes, and heat shield. When a spaceship reaches searing temperatures as it blazes back to Earth, you know you need a functional heat shield.
As Orion approaches the moon, it will slow down so the moon’s gravity can capture it and keep it in orbit. The craft will accelerate out of the moon’s gravity at speeds of up to 24,500 miles per hour to break through the lunar atmosphere and return to the home planet.
This is one of several planned missions for Orion that are meant to incrementally advance it to Mars. Exploration Mission 2 will touch down on the moon with astronauts for the first time since 1972. After 2020, NASA wants it to send astronauts to an asteroid before jetting to Mars sometime in the 2030s, which is behind Musk’s goal of turning humans into Martians by 2024. The SpaceX CEO may be daring, but it seems NASA has the right idea about taking its time to be meticulous with this future mission. Sorry, Elon.