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NASA To Test Orion Spacecraft For Long Future Missions

AUDIE CORNISH: A new spacecraft is expected to go into orbit tomorrow, if only briefly. NASA plans to launch a capsule named Orion from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Tomorrow's test is unmanned, but NASA hopes that Orion will one day carry astronauts beyond Earth's orbit and even to Mars. NASA administrator Charles Bolden says this is a major step forward.

CHARLES BOLDEN: No nation in the world has - in more than 40 years - has ever built a spacecraft intended to carry humans beyond the earth orbit.

CORNISH: Joining us to talk more about it is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hey there, Geoff.


CORNISH: So describe tomorrow's test.

BRUMFIEL: Well, basically Orion will lift off early tomorrow morning from Florida. It will orbit the earth twice and on the second orbit it'll fly to a height of 3,600 miles. It'll reenter the atmosphere four-and-a-half hours later over the Pacific and they'll go out in little boats and pick it up. The idea is to test several key systems including some of the separations that have to happen to make the capsule fly and the heat shield, which will protect it as it reenters the atmosphere.

CORNISH: What does it look like?

BRUMFIEL: Well, what it doesn't look like is the space shuttle, which is the NASA, astronaut-carrying spacecraft we're all familiar with. Orion actually looks a lot more like the Apollo capsules that carried astronauts to the moon. Charles Bolden says it looks like the top of an ice cream cone. The reason for this is that Orion is going much further out and when it reenters the atmosphere, it's coming really fast so it needs sort of a stubby, sturdy shape to survive reentry.

CORNISH: And I understand NASA's trying to take this thing into deep space eventually, right? I mean, what's the plan there?

BRUMFIEL: So the Obama administration has a plan, actually, to tow an asteroid into orbit around the moon. Orion will fly out and meet it and then they'll do some studies. And then, in the longer term, they want to take this thing to Mars. But here's the thing - Orion is teeny. It can only really supply life-support to astronauts for 21 days. So to get to Mars they need habitation modules. They need bigger rockets. And NASA isn't developing any of that stuff yet because, frankly, they just don't have the cash.

CORNISH: So it sounds like there's a lot at stake here for NASA.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, the way NASA puts it is this capsule is a really important first step for all these future plans and they need to show that these critical systems, like the heat shield, actually work. Now, the other problem is because of the budget constraints, NASA can only test this thing once every couple years. So the next test won't be until late 2017, early 2018. While they're doing that they're also trying to build another even bigger rocket to carry Orion, which they also want to test in the 2017-2018 timeframe. If something goes wrong on tomorrow's test, nobody's likely to die. It's an unmanned, but it's going to put a lot more pressure on the program. So while they say, you know, even if it goes wrong we're going to learn a lot, I think that there is a lot at stake for the program.

CORNISH: Geoff, you said unmanned. Is there any chance we're going to see astronauts going into space anytime soon?

BRUMFIEL: Well, NASA does have astronauts traveling on the Soyuz - Russian Soyuz - capsules to space right now. The hope is that Orion will carry astronauts sometime in the 2020s. At the moment, it doesn't have any of its life-support systems. It doesn't have its full grouping of computers and they need to develop all of that before they can put astronauts on board.

They were asked at a briefing today when that would happen, if it could happen by 2017-2018, and they said, honestly, we don't have the money. Everyone's just going to have to wait. We're going to do our next test in a couple years and maybe the test after that we'll put some astronauts aboard.

CORNISH: Geoff Brumfiel, thanks so much.

BRUMFIEL: Thanks for your time.

CORNISH: That's NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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