The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NASA prepares to test the spaceship that could take us to Mars

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

As the last man to walk on the moon prepared to fly back to Earth in 1972, astronaut Eugene Cernan echoed the words of the first, pledging with Neil-Armstrong-like grandiosity that “we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.” He later predicted that humans would reach Mars by the end of the 20th century.

Now Cernan admits: “I was a little off on my timing.”

Forty-two years after Cernan’s Apollo 17 mission touched down, not a single person has walked on the moon. A Mars landing is surely decades away, at best. And not a single space ship designed to carry astronauts has left Low Earth Orbit.

But at 7:05 Thursday morning, NASA is scheduled to take what it calls a huge step toward advancing the nation’s human space flight program, with the much-anticipated first test flight of the Orion spacecraft.

If all goes according to plan, the uncrewed Orion, manufactured by Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, would blast off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., orbit the Earth twice, hitting an altitude of about 3,600 miles above the surface of the planet. That’s farther than any spacecraft designed for humans has gone in more than 40 years.

Even though it is expected to last just 4.5 hours and won't have people on board, the test flight “is a big deal,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has said. (“A BFD,” he reportedly told one audience recently. “Forty years!”)

William Hill, a top NASA official, recently told reporters that the test flight is “absolutely the biggest thing that this agency is going to do this year.”

Unlike the capsules being developed by SpaceX and Boeing that would ferry astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, Orion is designed to go deep into space, “farther than humans have ever traveled,” according to NASA. The test flight alone would go 15 times farther than the space station.

But NASA and Lockheed have grander plans for the Orion, which resembles prior capsules such as the Apollo, but which officials say is vastly more advanced.

Sometime in the 2020s, NASA plans to capture an asteroid with a robotic spacecraft, then drag it to the moon’s orbit where it would connect with the Orion. Astronauts would then be able to take samples from the asteroid.

The big target, however, remains Mars. And Thursday’s test flight will help “put Mars within the reach of astronauts in the 2030s,” NASA says.

But the asteroid mission has been derided as a stunt—“That’s a dumb idea to start with. It’s nothing but talk,” Cernan said. The program for Mars has been fitful, and is to many a fantasy, especially considering that since the retirement of the space shuttle three years ago, the U.S. has not been able to send its astronauts to space from American soil.

“Forty-two years ago I walked on the moon,” Cernan said. “And today we can’t even put an American in space on American hardware. That’s heartbreaking. It’s disappointing. I cannot believe or imagine that we allowed this happen. … I anticipated we’d be well on our way, by golly, by now to Mars and there’s no reason we couldn’t have been.”

Orion originally grew out of a George W. Bush administration program, called Constellation, to return to the moon by 2020. The Obama administration killed Constellation and made Mars the priority over a return to the Moon because, as President Obama said at the time, “We’ve been there before.”

In the nearly 10 years since it first awarded Lockheed to contract to build Orion, NASA has spent more than $9 billion on the program. It also is developing what it calls a Space Launch System rocket that would take Orion to deep space in future missions. Thursday’s mission would use a Delta IV heavy rocket.

The cost of the SLS and Orion could grow to more than $30 billion, said Marco Caceres, a senior space analyst with the Teal Group consulting firm. There is a fair amount of opposition to the asteroid mission in Congress, and a Mars landing, some 20 years away at best, remains a dream.

“To make matters worse,” Caceres wrote in a recent blog, “is the painful fact that the rocket doesn’t actually have a mission.”

The Mars program is subject to funding constraints and a balky political system.

“This is the problem with anything that takes 20 years — people have very short attention spans,” Caceres said. “And you have numerous presidential administrations and Congresses, and inevitably someone gets around to canceling it, or reducing it.”

Still, the Orion test flight will be a huge day for NASA — and the Orion, which will face extreme conditions, from space radiation, to the 4,000 degree temperatures generated when it hits the atmosphere traveling at 20,000 mph.

The test flight “is basically a compilation of what I would say are the riskiest events that we’re going to see when we fly people,” Hill, the senior NASA official, told reporters.

There will be numerous “separation events” — the Launch Abort System, for example, and the crew module separation — that, Hill said, “have to work right the first time.” The heat shield will be put to an extreme test. And then there are the numerous parachutes that have to deploy correctly so that the capsule lands safely in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA is already looking ahead to Orion's next unmanned test flight in 2018, and the first manned flight in 2021 at the earliest. Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion Program Manager, said at a news briefing Tuesday that the long wait times are "budget driven."

"I wish it would go faster, but I think this is a good plan given the budget we've got," he said.

The October explosion of the unmanned Orbital Sciences rocket that was to supply the space station is hanging over the launch. So is the recent crash of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft that killed the co-pilot.

Those incidents “remind us that this business is very difficult,” said Mike Hawes, Lockheed’s Orion Program Manager.

Officials have done everything they can to “identify your risks and do everything you can to mitigate them. But you still fly with a level of risk.”

Geyer said he hoped “everything is perfect” and that there are “high-fives” all around after ward. But officials will be looking for the things that aren’t perfect, so they “can learn and fix it before we put people on board.”