After launching from Florida, NASA’s Orion spacecraft splashed into the Pacific Ocean less than five hours later. The successful $375-million flight test officially launched the U.S. back into the final frontier.
“Everywhere I go, the world over, students, citizens, scientists, explorers and entrepreneurs are eager to get in on the action in this new era of space exploration,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden told CNN prior to the Orion launch.
The unmanned test flight was the first step in NASA’s developing Mars exploration program. Last week, NASA officials announced intentions to send astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s.
By 2025, teams of four astronauts will travel to asteroids between Earth and the Red Planet. The next test flight is set for 2018.
The purpose of Friday’s test flight was two-fold: to test critical safety systems and to expose the spacecraft to the orbital environment it would endure for longer missions.
After recent spacecraft launch catastrophes shocked the global audience, NASA is eager to proceed with effective precautions. The 11-foot-long capsule was filled with sensors measuring radiation, heat, and other critical factors.
Upon landing two of the five airbags designed to keep the spacecraft floating upright failed to deploy. The minor hitch did not prevent effective retention or recovery of the capsule.
“The world has learned much about the Red Planet after decades of exploration with rovers and orbiters, but the time has come for human exploration, and we intend to meet the challenge,” Bolden said. “The Orion test flight is the first step. It is important to remember that NASA sent humans to the moon by setting a goal that seemed beyond our reach.
“With our Journey to Mars program, NASA is once again well on its way to breathing new life into an American dream and turning science fiction into science fact,” he said.
NASA reported that its Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, the “first spacecraft dedicated to exploring the tenuous upper atmosphere of Mars,” successfully rendezvoused with Mars and began orbiting the planet on September 21.
MAVEN’s successful rendezvous was the culmination of 11 years of work for the NASA team and about 10 months of travel for the spacecraft.
“It’s taken 11 years from the original concept for MAVEN to now having a spacecraft in orbit at Mars,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “I’m delighted to be here safely and successfully, and looking forward to starting our science mission.”
When the NASA team got the news they had been waiting for—“Based on observed navigation data, congratulations, MAVEN is now in Mars orbit”—they “erupted with cheers of happiness and relief.” There was only one opportunity during the spacecraft’s projection to get it into orbit, and they had succeeded.
MAVEN is now in the data collection phase of its journey. Three of its eight scientific instruments were activated on September 22, and the rest will activate between now and early November.
“NASA has a long history of scientific discovery at Mars and the safe arrival of MAVEN opens another chapter,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “Maven will complement NASA’s other Martian robotic explorers—and those of our partners around the globe—to answer some fundamental questions about Mars and life beyond Earth.”
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