Early Thursday morning, NASA will test fly a new vehicle designed to carry astronauts into space—for the first time since 1981.
Utah’s NASA ambassador Patrick Wiggins said the Orion spacecraft will orbit the earth two times then re-enter the atmosphere, plunging into the Pacific Ocean hours after its launch. Though this initial trip will only take the spacecraft 3,600 miles away from earth, the ultimate goal of the craft is to, decades into the future, land on Mars.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing the first humans get to Mars. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but it’s going to happen eventually,” Wiggins said. “So that’s basically what this thing is, it’s a way to get humans way out into space."
NASA is calling this mission the beginning of human exploration of deep space. Wiggins says launches following this preliminary mission will prepare the way for humans to travel immense distances from the earth, up to 15 times farther than the International Space Station, according to NASA.
“We’re getting home-grown ability to launch people into space, and not just close space,” Wiggins said.
Technologies from the Utah location of Alliant Techsystems Inc. play an important role in the Orion mission. ATK engineers have developed the launch abort motor for the craft and have provided the five-segment solid rocket boosters aboard NASA’s Space Launch System, from which Orion is designed to launch.
The spacecraft will leave from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida within a two-hour window beginning at 5:03 a.m. MT. For information on how to watch the launch, NASA’s website.