At 7:05 a.m. on Friday, December 5, the United States took the first step on its long journey to Mars when the Orion spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on its inaugural test flight. Riding into space atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, the mission, dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1, tested Orion’s ability to withstand the intense radiation of Earth’s Van Allen belts, as well as its basic spaceflight, re-entry, and recovery systems. In the words of Mark Geyer, Orion’s program manager, the test flight was designed “to give us real data that we can use to improve Orion’s design going forward.”
But Orion’s first test flight represents much more than an opportunity to collect data and refine spacecraft design; it represents the return of American leadership and ambition on the final frontier. Not since 1972 had a spacecraft designed to carry humans ventured as far out into space as Orion did last Friday. Since the termination of its manned missions to the moon, the United States had been content to confine its missions to low Earth orbit. Skylab, the space shuttle, and the International Space Station, or ISS, all reflected a narrowness of vision when it came to America’s and humanity’s role in space. Making matters worse, the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011 left the United States without a way to put astronauts in orbit.
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