Cue the Rocky theme song. Because come Thursday morning, an American spacecraft will undergo a rigorous training gauntlet not seen since the Apollo moon-landing era.
“Thursday is a huge day for us,” NASA Orion program manager Mark Geyer said, according to Reuters. “Part of me hopes that everything is perfect ... but really on a flight test like this ... we want to discover things that are beyond our modeling capability and beyond our expertise so we learn [about] it and fix it.”
During its grueling four-and-half-hour test mission, NASA’s Orion space capsule must shoot 3,600 miles away from Earth, orbit the planet twice, and brave a thick belt of cosmic radiation. Upon re-entry it must deploy 11 parachutes and slow down from 20,000 miles per hour to 20 mph, while withstanding 4,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures before plunging into the Pacific Ocean. It’s a mouthful of challenges, but if Orion triumphs it may one day take astronauts on adventures beyond Earth’s orbit—and potentially to Mars. But in order to reach that ambition, the craft must first be properly vetted.
The unmanned vessel will blast off at 7:05 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This mission is the first of three trial runs that the Orion mission must overcome before NASA deems it safe enough for human space travel. In four years, a second unmanned Orion capsule will venture around the moon, and then in 2021 NASA expects to have a third capsule carry astronauts. This first unmanned test, called Exploration Flight Test-1, will cost $370 million and mark the farthest distance traveled by a human spaceflight vehicle since 1972 made by Apollo 17, according to Space.com. Like those early black and white missions, the Orion retains the same shape and structure as its 1960s Apollo predecessor, but it will fit four astronauts instead of three. All space capsules since have kept the design, which is optimal for touchdown, according to Reuters.
The aspirations could prove to be a boon for NASA’s future space missions. Since the Apollo missions, astronauts have not traveled beyond low Earth orbit where the International Space Station resides. Orion's success could help propel humans into deep space for the first time in 40 years.
“Going from where we're at today with the space station to distances like Mars is extremely challenging,” said Jason Crusan, the director of advanced exploration systems at NASA, to Space.com. “With this week's flight of Orion, we're now entering into the next phase of advancing our capabilities.”