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Lots Of Work Remains After Successful Orion Launch


Early this morning in Florida, NASA launched Orion, its latest spacecraft.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And liftoff at dawn. The dawn of Orion and a new era of American Space exploration

CORNISH: It went up and, four and a half hours later, it came down.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A bull's eye splashdown for America's newest spacecraft.

CORNISH: A perfect landing in the Pacific Ocean. Joining us to discuss Orion's flight and what it means for NASA is NPR's science correspondent, Geoff Brumfiel. Hey there, Geoff.


CORNISH: All right. So, where did Orion really go on this first journey?

BRUMFIEL: Well, Orion is designed for what NASA calls deep space exploration. But, on this trip, it stuck pretty close to Earth. It basically went up, it did two laps of Earth, got up to about 3,600 miles, then it came back in over the Pacific Ocean and landed.

CORNISH: So is this a big success for NASA?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. I mean, it was a success. This is a brand-new capsule. This flight was unmanned but this is, sort of, the first spacecraft designed for astronauts since NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011. And everything worked well, but this isn't really game-changing new technology. I mean, this looks exactly like an Apollo capsule. And I went back and watched some YouTube of Apollo landings and it looked very, very similar to what we saw today. And several key systems weren't on board.

CORNISH: Now, what was missing?

BRUMFIEL: Well, seats for one thing. This thing is supposed to carry four astronauts but it didn't have its seats. It also didn't have life-support or solar panels to power it. It was using batteries on this trip. And then there's the rocket. Remember, this is a little capsule that's supposed to go up into space. But it sits on top of a much larger rocket that NASA is still developing. On this flight, they just used a standard commercial rocket they would use for satellites.

CORNISH: So it seems like a lot of work has to be done before this thing can actually carry astronauts, right? I mean, earlier in this week you said that NASA might want to do that by 2020s.

BRUMFIEL: That's right. I mean, we're talking the first astronaut flights in 2020. So NASA wants to do a lot more with this little capsule. It wants to go to visit an asteroid, maybe go to Mars. But to do all that it needs even more. It needs habitation modules. It needs special rockets. And, you know, we're talking - the next flight that will have its big rocket, just to carry the capsule, that's not even going to happen until 2018. So really, sort of, the grander vision of NASA is a long way off right now.

CORNISH: Really? Four more years?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. That's right. Four years until that next test. Now, NASA's going to tell you that this is being done at a deliberate pace, but this is really about money. I mean, NASA has spent billions developing this capsule, developing the rocket to carry the capsule. And it's enormously expensive and it really has a flat budget. Now, critics say the space agency could be doing better. I mean, it's really developing very old-school, heavy-duty stuff. But bottom line, you know, whether you believe the critics or NASA that they're moving as fast as they can, it's all about money. That's what's driving this program and how quickly it goes.

CORNISH: That's NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thanks.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you very much. 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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