In preparation for the manned mission to Mars in the future, NASA is launching the first spaceship that was designed to carry astronauts beyond the Earth's orbit since Apollo 11 successfully landed the first men on the moon.
On Thursday, an Orion spacecraft made by Lockheed Martin for the U.S space agency will have its long awaited maiden test flight. The space capsule, which NASA intends to use for exploring the moon, asteroids and eventually planet Mars, will blast off aboard a Delta 4 Heavy rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:05 a.m. EST on Dec. 4.
The flight will still be unmanned and is anticipated to last in four and a half hours, but NASA sees Orion's first test flight as an important step in its planned explorations of the solar system which include sending the first humans to Mars.
"Thursday is a huge day for us," said NASA Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer. "Part of me hopes that everything is perfect ... but really on a flight test like this ... we want to discover things that are beyond our modeling capability and beyond our expertise so we learn (about) it and fix it."
The plan is to catapult Orion to as far as 3,600 miles from the Earth so it will reenter the atmosphere at a speed of 20,000 miles per hour, or about 80 percent of the speed it would endure should it return from the moon.
The test flight will assess the jettison of the launch abort system, which will ensure the safety of the astronauts onboard should there be a problem on the launch pad or during the ascent to space, as well as the separation of the Orion crew module from the service module prior to the spacecraft reentering the Earth's atmosphere.
Scientists will also check how Orion can endure a high speed return from space and how well its heat shield can withstand a temperature near 4,000 Fahrenheit it will experience when it gets back into the Earth's atmosphere. The test will also look at how the spacecraft's computer could handle the radiation in the Van Allen Belt.
Orion is set to have its first manned flight in 2021 and many of the systems needed for that flight will be tested on Thursday.
"Really, we're going to test the riskiest parts of the mission," Geyer said. "Ascent, entry and things like fairing separations, Launch Abort System jettison, the parachutes plus the navigation and guidance - all those things are going to be tested. Plus we'll fly into deep space and test the radiation effects on those systems."