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NASA's Orion Capsule Looks And Acts Like Apollo


It's a big week for NASA. Yesterday it successfully launched the Orion space capsule into orbit then plunked it safely into the Pacific Ocean. This is the first time NASA has launched a spacecraft intended for astronauts since the space shuttle was retired in 2011. Of course yesterday's flight didn't have anyone on board and tonight, a NASA probe nearly 3 billion miles away is set to be awakened from hibernation. That probe is heading towards Pluto and it will begin to study the planet next month.

We're joined now by NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thanks very much for being with us.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Nice to see you, Scott.

SIMON: So how big a step was this for NASA, to get Orion up and running?

BRUMFIEL: Well, this was a pretty big step for the space agency. Remember, since the shuttle retired they've just been going back and forth to the International Space Station and they've been doing it on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. So NASA astronauts haven't been flying in their own spaceships. This new Orion vehicle's designed for deep space exploration. It's the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth's orbit since the Apollo program. And that really means something to the people working on it. Mike Hawes is with Lockheed Martin, but he used to be at NASA back in 1979 and here's what he had to say.

MIKE HAWES: We started with all the Apollo guys still there, so we've kind of now finally done something for the first time for our generation. It's a good day.

BRUMFIEL: You can really hear the emotion in his voice. After a long time, NASA feels like it might be going somewhere again.

SIMON: Yeah. Of course he mentions Apollo. I've seen the Orion capsule and it looks like the Apollo capsule. They didn't waste any money on new design, it seems.

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter) No. No, in fact they didn't. I mean this is very squarely in the Apollo camp. It's pretty stripped-down. It didn't have life-support, it didn't have solar panels, it didn't even have seats. And we're not going to see a lot of that until the next test flight in 2018.

SIMON: And why so long? Why four years for the next test flight?

BRUMFIEL: Well, part of the delay is that NASA wants to launch this capsule on a new rocket so they're building a very, very big rocket that they hope can take this capsule far from Earth. On this flight they just used a commercial rocket they would use for satellites. But the other big issue here is money. I mean this capsule and the rocket, they cost billions of dollars to develop. NASA has a flat budget. So you know, they're really having to go very slowly. Now, critics say maybe they could do it differently and go faster. Basically, the bottom line is this is all about money.

SIMON: Yeah. The bottom line is the bottom line.

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter).

SIMON: Of course we mentioned at the top the Pluto probe, and tell us a bit about this.

BRUMFIEL: This is pretty cool. It's a reminder we are going places in space, even if we're not going ourselves. And it's going to be - believe it or not - the first probe to visit Pluto. I didn't know this. I thought we had photos of Pluto, but we really don't. We have some fuzzy pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope. And scientists have no idea what they're going to see. They know Pluto has some very strong surface features. They could be mountains, they could be craters, they could even be lakes of some liquid, like methane. But we honestly have no idea what Pluto looks like and we're going to find out. So that's very exciting.

SIMON: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks very much.

BRUMFIEL: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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