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NASA has a spaceship, but where will it go?

An illustration of what the spacecraft Orion will look like during its first-ever test flight Thursday. (Courtesy NASA)

Nothing demonstrates the extreme inertia of space technology more vividly than the Orion space capsule, which NASA has been working on since 2006 and which, as my colleague Chris Davenport reports, will finally have its first test flight Thursday morning if all goes as planned.

The capsule has cost something like $9 billion so far and will cost billions more before it is ever flown with people inside. Orion will be launched this time atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, one of the jumbo rockets owned by United Launch Alliance (a Boeing-Lockheed partnership that has a virtual monopoly on national security and military launches). This will be a quick flight, lasting just 4½ hours, with a couple of spins around the Earth and a top altitude of 3,600 miles before the capsule splashes down into the Pacific Ocean.

Then, in 2018, Orion will have its first test flight atop NASA’s new SLS heavy-lift rocket, which is still being built. The key detail about these first two test flights is that no one will be aboard. Finally, circa 2021 or 2022, Orion will have its maiden flight with human beings inside.

You don’t need an advanced degree from MIT to grasp that this is a very stately, deliberate program, one free of the sin of haste and the vice of urgency.

Has there ever been a piece of human space hardware developed so slowly?

Or so expensively?

Serious question: Is it not a fact that Orion is the costliest capsule in human history?

Yes, it has lots of bells and whistles that the Apollo capsules lacked. This one has XM/Sirius radio built in, butt-warmers in the seats, four-way adjustable mirrors and Big-Gulp-sized cup-holders. It’s got a guest room, a fully stocked bar, a laundry room and 24-hour concierge service. It’s a really nice spaceship!

NASA will launch its newest spacecraft, Orion, into space for the first time Thursday, on a flight that will take it farther than any spacecraft built to carry humans has gone in more than 40 years. (Video: NASA)

The great mystery is where it will go. If you have a big rocket (like the SLS) and this new capsule, where should you go?

This question was at the core of The Washington Post’s big NASA project last year, which we called “Destination Unknown.” The Houston Chronicle has a similar whither-NASA series this year, entitled “Adrift.”

Thursday’s flight, according to NASA, will help “put Mars within the reach of astronauts in the 2030s,” according to Davenport’s story. Here is NASA’s slightly scary-looking Journey to Mars graphic that shows Orion as a component.

The problem is, there is no such thing as a NASA Mars mission right now. That’s an aspiration that currently lacks funding. In space, budget is mission-critical.

Orion could, in theory, be used for such a mission, but it’s a single piece of what would be a complex array of technologies and hardware. Yes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, but only if you keep walking, and are seriously committed to the journey — no pretending or arm-waving allowed.

(I drive to the store and buy an onion. I drive home and cut it up and put it in a big pot on the stove and then go watch television. Someone asks me, “What are you doing?” and I answer, “I’m making gumbo.” And the someone says, “What about the garlic, the peppers, the celery, the fresh okra, the andouille sausage, the grilled chicken, the fish, the shrimp, those special blended peppers you always use, and the roux, not to mention the fresh French bread on the side?” I answer, “I can’t afford that right now.”)

Orion was designed to take astronauts to the moon as part of the Bush Administration’s Constellation program. Obama killed the program but, along with Congress, let key elements of it survive, namely Orion and the heavy-lift rocket. Space hardware is highly customized, so the kind of heat shield you’d want for a trip back from the moon, and into Earth’s atmosphere, is different than one you’d want if you’re returning from Mars. So if Orion were used in a Mars mission it would probably need a heat shield upgrade (I’m told by smart friends who understand the engineering). No problem, but are you sure you want a four-seat capsule for your Mars mission? Maybe you’d want something different by the time you drew up the blueprints for the journey — a smaller, Honda Civic-sized thing rather than this Ford F750. In space, hardware tends to be extremely customized and is designed for specific missions. NASA doesn’t use a lot of off-the-shelf material; it rarely says, “We got this cool spaceship; let’s take it for a spin and see what we bump into.”

As we reported last year in our series, NASA wants to go to Mars but can’t afford it, and cooked up a fallback plan involving a trip to an asteroid. But it can’t afford that, either, since, for reasons of orbital dynamics and delta-V, visiting an asteroid in its natural orbit around the sun would require a mission lasting on the order of 300 days and a full roundtrip around the sun before the crew returned to Earth. So the fallback to the fallback is the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which would involve a robotic spacecraft that would capture a small asteroid and tug it to lunar orbit. The astronauts would then blast off in the Orion, atop the SLS, and rendezvous with the rock and do spacewalks and inspect it and bring back samples.

That is the NASA plan.

Orion’s test flight is part of that narrative. I hope, and expect, that it will go swimmingly, because NASA engineers are great at what they do and invest years of their lives in developing these spaceships. It should make for an interesting morning. But where this is going, ultimately, will remain something of a mystery.