Flying High With Orion Spacecraft

Orion Spacecraft SplashdownAs a child growing up in the 1970’s, spaceflight was a big deal. I watched the Apollo 11 moon landing while in utero with my parents a month before I was born. While the moon landings were old news by the time I got into school, the Apollo-Soyuz test flight between America and the Soviet Union, the fateful re-entry of Skylab, and the space shuttle program were future milestones. Spaceflight became routine—and home computers caught my interest—in the 1980’s. With the exception of the Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) shuttle disasters, spaceflight was no longer a big deal. With the flawless test flight of the Orion spacecraft to send astronauts to the moon and beyond, perhaps that will change.

Orion wasn’t on my mind at work until I noticed the headline tucked away on a corner of The New York Times website. (Unless something blows up and lives are lost, routine spaceflight will never capture the front page again.) I watched the NASA videos for launch and splashdown of the 4.5-hour mission.

The new spacecraft made a single Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where the space shuttles and the International Space Station travel, before the second stage rocket boosted it into a 3,600-mile high orbit to fly through the Van Allen radiation belt and simulate a 20,000 MPH atmospheric re-entry that blasts the heat shield at 4,000 F degrees. From launch to splashdown, 1,200 sensors sent back telemetry data to help engineers prepare for the next test flight.

As I read the news commentary and review the technical specs of the Delta IV heavy rocket (which normally launches satellites into orbit), I felt like the kid who reviewed the NASA pamphlets on space missions at the local library with hope and excitement. The threat of nuclear annihilation from the Cold War in the 20th century was a good motivation to get off the planet. With the threat of global warming in the 21st century, getting off the planet is still a good idea. The survival of humanity will depend on going into space.

A lot of the focus for the new manned spaceflight is from Earth orbit towards Mars and beyond. (This is where the “deep space” label gets slapped on by commentators, which in my opinion should apply only to space missions beyond the solar system.) What about Venus (second planet from the sun)? Granted, Earth’s sister world isn’t the most inviting place for a manned mission with a sulfuric acid atmosphere hot enough that lead is a liquid. But, like Mount Everest being the tallest peak on Earth, it’s there to visit and closer than Mars.

Blogger Michael J. Battaglia in Scientific American makes a good argument for a flyby visit to Venus: “A circumnavigation of Venus would test our ability to function in deep space, to enter a planet’s gravitational influence, to create robust shielding for the higher radiation at Venus’s relatively close proximity to the sun, to devise zero-g strategies for long-duration flights—all of which would bolster us for an even longer journey to Mars. Besides, for a long-duration mission, we might not want to commit our astronauts to landing on Mars only to find out that they could not walk, their musculature had so degenerated upon arrival. In contrast, the crew of a long Venus round-trip would land not on a faraway planet but back on Earth, where medical attention is readily available if needed.”

Due to ever smaller budgets, NASA will have to compromise mission objectives to get the most bangs for the buck. The next unmanned test flight for Orion to cruise around the moon will be in 2017 or 2018. With the Chinese and the Russians planning missions to the moon, a new space race might make spaceflight more exciting and less routine again.