Orion’s Launch Heralds America’s Triumphant Return to Human Space Exploration

The rocket with NASA’s Orion spacecraft mounted on top lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on December 5, 2014.

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.

Orion’s successful flight test demonstrates that the United States has both the will and the means to put astronauts into Earth orbit and beyond. Long-simmering talk about a human expedition to Mars has finally taken on an air of reality, and the United States is leading the way. Although Orion’s next unmanned flight is not scheduled until 2018 and its first flight with astronauts is not slated until 2021, last Friday’s test flight, along with September’s announcement of contracts awarded to Boeing and SpaceX for “space taxi” service to the International Space Station, serves as notice that America is once again leading humanity into space.

The sparse flight schedule going forward reflects the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s, or NASA’s, budgetary constraints much more than its technical obstacles. These constraints are worrying enough that outside expert panels, such as the National Academy of Sciences’ Space Studies Board, have questioned the feasibility of NASA’s current plans. The Space Launch System, the powerful new rocket that will lift Orion to the Moon and beyond, is projected to cost at least $7 billion before it makes its first launch in 2017 or 2018. If the promise of Orion’s test flight is to be made reality, NASA will require sustained, sufficient funding over the multiple decades it will take to build a program that lands humans on Mars.

These costs can, at least in part, be offset by international collaboration. To build and run the International Space Station, the United States has worked with international partners such as the European Space Agency, Canada, and Japan. International cooperation is already under way on Orion; the European Space Agency is already building and paying for the service module for the next Orion flight. This cooperation can and should be expanded to include America’s other long-standing space partners and offered to potential new partners such as India. The private sector will also be important in developing the capabilities necessary to travel to Mars. But international commitments to work on Orion will only come if the United States itself remains committed to the program, and reliable funding is a major way that Washington can signal its continued commitment to leadership in human spaceflight.

However, these future concerns ought not obscure the importance of last Friday’s successful test flight. The people who pulled off what remains a complex feat of science and engineering deserve the rightful commendations they are receiving from around the world. These intrepid individuals have begun America’s return to leadership in space and have brought the long-standing dream of human exploration of Mars one step closer to reality.

Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Rudy deLeon is a Senior Fellow at the Center.