One Step Closer To Mars

NASA’s Orion spaceship, which failed to launch yesterday, successfully made it today – watch the launch and journey here. Nicholas St. Fleur describes its significance:

During its grueling four-and-half-hour test mission, NASA’s Orion space capsule must shoot 3,600 miles away from Earth, orbit the planet twice, and brave a thick belt of cosmic radiation. Upon re-entry it must withstand a 4,000-degree Fahrenheit fireball created by atmospheric friction decreasing its speed from 20,000 miles per hour to 300 mph. Once it slows to that speed, the craft must deploy 11 parachutes in order to slow down to 20 mph, before plunging into the Pacific Ocean.

It’s a mouthful of challenges, but if Orion triumphs it may one day take astronauts on adventures beyond Earth’s orbit—and potentially to Mars. … This mission is the first of three trial runs that the Orion mission must overcome before NASA deems it safe enough for human space travel.

Jesus Diaz is psyched about this mission and other recent ones:

We sent an amazing rover to Mars in a seemingly impossible mission that had the entire world watching with baited breath. A few weeks ago, we landed on a comet. This week, we sent another spaceship to return material from an asteroid. Today we launched the spaceship that will take humans back to the Moon, asteroids, Phobos, and Mars.

So yes, I look at Orion rising against the deep blue, I hear the cheers coming out of my mouth and countless others, I see the millions of people watching this apparently insignificant event—just a spacecraft that is empty going up and splashing on the Atlantic Ocean—and it feels like the 60s all over again. The path is open again, a sunbeam illuminating its gates, now clean of the vines that had grown through all these years of abandonment.

Joe Pappalardo offers a more critical take:

The Orion launch has been be a triumph of engineering, hiccups and delays aside. But the Empire may not love the sequel. SpaceX is planning a historic launch of its own next year – the rocket is called the Falcon Heavy. Yes, Musk named his rocket after the Millennium Falcon of Star Wars, and he promises it will take twice as much payload into space as the one Nasa launched on Friday, and at one-third the cost. So far his claims about SpaceX have come true, and soon he’ll be fighting, with the lobbyists and the politicians who play favorites, for satellite contracts worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Combine that kind of force with Elon Musk’s capsule full of actual people returning to space – under a Nasa contract to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station – and you have a private startup that can beat Nasa or any other government agency back to the moon, if it so chooses.

Return of the Jedi, indeed.

Update from a reader:

The quote you included from Joe Pappalardo betrays a deep misunderstanding about SpaceX’s role in space exploration and its relationship to NASA. I work for a nonprofit space advocacy organization – The Planetary Society – and I direct its Advocacy and Space Policy program. I do this sort of stuff for a living.

The idea that SpaceX is a purely private, Silicon Valley-esqe startup is fueled by our society’s current swoon for tech culture, frustration at the lumbering pace of NASA, and Elon Musk himself. But it’s not true. SpaceX is a contractor whose business depends almost exclusively on NASA money. NASA provided hundreds of millions of dollars of crucial development money for SpaceX’s Falcon-family of rockets and Dragon crew capsules, and billions of more dollars in contracts for delivering crew and supplies to the space station. Without NASA, there would not be a SpaceX today.

Orion costs more than SpaceX’s hardware because it is tasked with carrying humans far deeper into space than anything SpaceX is developing. You get more radiation. You need to carry more life support. Your heat shield needs to be bigger for reentry. Your safety requirements are higher. And so forth. You can’t really compare the two, because they’re built for entirely different goals and under entirely different contracting regimes. SpaceX is doing what has been done before. Orion is pushing the envelope.

This isn’t to diminish SpaceX’s capabilities and achievements, but to baldly state that SpaceX can send humans to the Moon or Mars for cheaper than NASA, without any actual proof of capability (not to mention a business model, which is conspicuously absent at the moment), undermines the difficulty of what NASA is trying to do. It’s also just flat-out wrong.

Another notes:

Jesus Diaz may have been psyched, but he put Orion down in the wrong ocean; it was the Pacific, 250 miles west of Baja, California. Just rocket science, Jesus.