The U.S. is preparing to launch the first craft developed to fly humans to Mars, presaging a second space age — this one fueled by billionaires like Elon Musk rather than a Cold War contest with the Soviet Union.
An unmanned version of the Orion spaceship built by Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) is scheduled for liftoff tomorrow to an altitude of 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometers), the farthest from Earth by a vehicle designed for people since the Apollo program was scrapped in 1972.
Entrepreneurs such as Musk and longtime contractors like Lockheed are helping shape the technology needed to find other homes for humanity in the solar system with an eye to one day commercializing their work.
“These are really exciting times for space exploration and for our nation as we begin to return to the ability to fly humans to space,” said Jim Crocker, vice president and general manager of civil space at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “What Orion is about is going further into space than humans have ever gone before.”
Launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a Delta IV rocket, the Orion capsule will test the riskiest systems needed to carry astronauts far beyond the moon, although its first flight will cover only about 2 percent of the 238,900-mile distance to the lunar surface.
After orbiting earth twice, Orion will accelerate to 20,000 miles per hour during descent, mimicking the speeds of a craft returning from a mission to deep space. The capsule is supposed to make a parachute-cushioned splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s Baja peninsula.
To explore the universe, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration must first redevelop capabilities abandoned more than 40 years ago when the U.S. shifted focus from Apollo’s lunar forays to rocketing crews a few hundred miles to low Earth orbit.
NASA has used Russian craft to reach the International Space Station since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.
In a strategic shift, the Obama administration canceled plans to return to the moon, turning some flights to commercial companies while setting its sights — and limited funds — on pioneering deep space. The Orion capsule was originally commissioned in 2006 for the defunct Constellation program.
Those moves paved the way for technology chieftains including Musk and Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos to pursue their own space ambitions.
Musk founded Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of enabling people to live on other planets, a massive endeavor that would require innovations such as reusable rocket stages to lower costs.
Mars is also in focus for NASA as the space agency maps plans to “pioneer the space frontier,” according to a May 29 white paper.
NASA proposes an initial $22 billion effort that includes two other Orion missions over the next eight years and building a powerful new rocket. The Delta IV being used tomorrow is manufactured by United Launch Alliance, a Lockheed-Boeing Co. (BA) venture.
A new Space Launch System rocket being developed by the partnership is slated to hoist the next Orion craft beyond the moon in fiscal 2018, Lockheed’s Crocker said in a phone interview. The first manned Orion mission is slated for early in the next decade.
NASA’s plans are “sketchy” beyond that, aside from broad goals to capture asteroid samples in the 2020s and reach Mars a decade later, said Marco Caceres, director of space studies with Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant Teal Group.
While Mars’s distance from Earth varies because of the two planets’ orbits, the average is about 140 million miles, almost 600 times longer than a trip to the moon. It’s so far that radio communications take as long as 20 minutes to travel each way, according to Bill Hill, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development.
Entrepreneurs such as Musk will have opportunities to get involved as NASA refines capsule and rocket designs. NASA plans to develop two larger rockets beyond the initial launch vehicle, which will be capable of hauling a 70-metric ton payload.
“We’re not taking any options off the table,” Hill said. “We want to be sufficiently flexible so that if we find a new path, we can introduce it and not change course.”
Expense, shifting political priorities and the lack of a clear NASA road map could still derail the latest effort as they did the Apollo program in the early 1970s, said Micah Walter-Range, director of research analysis with the Space Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“All of the challenges that exist are surmountable,” Walter-Range said by phone. “It’s just a question of having the money to do it.”