Mighty Orion

by: Chris Thompson

After forty-two years, humankind triumphantly returns to the exploration of space….


Last Friday, a generational milestone was reached. An achievement not attempted since the Apollo missions of the 1960s landed twelve brave astronauts on the Moon. With the rising of the sun over Space Launch Complex 37B in Cape Canaveral, Florida, came the dawn of a new era, and a modern push for humanity’s explorations of the heavens. And riding shotgun atop a massive Delta IV rocket belching out fiery-orange exhaust, was NASA’s sleek new space capsule Orion, blazing like a spear into the early morning sky. Its mission was simple: orbit the Earth and return in one piece. Its potential though, was limitless, for it represented a first step in humanity’s eventual exploration of the planet Mars, and beyond.

Everytime I see one of these launches, I feel like a kid again. My eyes go wide. My fingers tingle with excitement and my mouth drifts slightly agape. I’m transfixed, as if watching a high-flying trapeze artist for the very first time. It’s thrilling to me that despite all that is unfolding in this crazy world, humanity is still able to pull off these type of feats. It reawakens within me my sense of awe, my sense of hope, and reconnects me with that ribbon of collective curiosity that resides within all of us. That type of wonderment that makes us raise our heads up to the skies and ask “Why?” It’s an amazing experience to tap into this feeling. Like one part traveling back in time, to when our ancestors would look up at those same shimmering stars and ponder their significance, and one part sitting co-pilot with Han Solo, as he maneuvers the Millenium Falcon between bursts of Imperial blaster fire. It’s the past, present and future, all merging into one, and strung together by humanity’s inherent inquisitiveness with the world.

Modern films like Gravity and Interstellar have delighted us with their larger-than-life depictions of the realities of space, keeping the topic of space exploration firmly within popular culture. But less realistic, and move captivating space operas like Star Wars, Star Trek, Aliens, and Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey Trilogy, blazed the way for these new films to succeed. But there were also popular dreamers like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov who made it possible for those first space operas to be successful. And there were also popular writers like Frederik Pohl, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Frank Herbert, who championed space travel and exploration with the written word. By bringing the early concepts of space exploration into our homes, and by breaking-down the complex terminology and theories involved in exploring the heavens into easily-digestible and entertaining parts, these visionaries and storytellers helped to maintain our fascination with the heavens while NASA readied its return. And now, more than forty years after we first left Earth, and with the popular mindset of the day very much in tune with the concepts of space travel, NASA is poised to once again, leave.

Last Friday’s launch was a scene wildly familiar to those who were old enough to remember when President Kennedy cast our national gaze space-wards, calling on NASA to put American boots on the moon. It was also familiar to those born of the MTV generation, who grew up under the influence of NASA’s remarkable Space Shuttle program. They are the generation of computers. Of television. Of the emergence of the Internet and the Global Citizen. But they are also the generation who will shepherd humanity on its return to space. Orion’s ascent on Friday was fiery. It was loud. It was powerful and it gave birth to our future amongst the stars, with a roiling cloud of smoke and dust. But most of all, it was triumphant. For with it, Orion carried the hopes and aspirations of a new future. Of a new path. Of a fledgling generation of children transfixed by the possibilities of exploring our heavens. It’s a future that leans heavily on leaving the confines of Earth, and returning once-again to the grandiose days when we fearlessly explored our world. It’s the past, present and future once again, three generations merging into one, and strung together by our collective desire to return to the stars.

Resembling its Apollo-era forerunners, Orion is the first spacecraft in over a generation designed to transport humans beyond low-Earth orbit. This nimble spacecraft is capable of supporting multiple missions with the intention of taking astronauts outside the confines of Earth’s influence and facilitate the prolonged exploration of space. Intended to be a replacement for the retired Space Shuttle program, the Orion space capsule is able to support four astronauts on missions lasting upwards of twenty-one days of active crew time and up to six months of quiescence. In this “idle” state, the Orion crew will draw power and resources from a proposed Deep Space Habitat attached to the capsule, which will allow its astronauts to survive for extended periods of exploration ((Think of a mobile, mini-version of the International Space Station)). During this time, crew members would be able to travel to the Moon, exploring both its cratered features and any robotically-captured asteroids placed into a stable lunar orbit by NASA. All of this is fascinating. It’s the stuff of science fiction and fantasy come to life. But it’s also of major significance, for these early Orion missions will be a proof-of-principle program for what NASA’s current goal truly is: landing humans on the red sands of Mars.

Packing a massive, sixteen foot wide heat shield capable of withstanding temperatures in excess of 4,0000 ºF and a complex, parachute system designed to slow the capsule from 20,000 mph to just 20 mph, the Orion space capsule is a feat of modern engineering. In its debut test flight last Friday, known as the Exploration Test Flight-1, Orion left Earth on a four and a half hour unmanned mission designed to test critical launch and re-entry systems in support of an extended manned mission to the Moon in 2021. Orion’s Delta IV Heavy Launch rocket, currently the highest capacity launch vehicle in the world, put the space capsule into an orbit at a staggering 3,600 miles above the Earth’s surface. For comparison, the International Space Station, humanity’s only permanent presence in space, orbits at a comfortable 268 miles above the Earth. That means that Orion traveled almost fourteen times further than the farthest we have gone from the Earth since the Apollo missions began over forty years ago. That alone is a remarkable feat! And after several flawless orbits of the planet, in which Orion’s flight cameras obtained stunning footage of our beautiful home, the high-apogee obtained by Orion finally came to an end. Turning back towards Earth, and to the fiery re-entry that was its fate, Orion screamed into the Earth’s atmosphere at a staggering 20,000 mph, twenty-six times the speed of sound, and at a rate it would theoretically achieve on a return mission from the Moon.

As Orion screamed through the sky, shrouded in a fiery veil of super-hot plasma that heated its shield to temperatures hotter than molten lava, I was on the edge of my seat. NASA does parachutes. I know that. But that still wasn’t enough to alleviate my fears of Orion’s break-up upon re-entry. It was all up to a series of eleven red and white parachutes to slow the space capsules breakneck descent. A number that to me, seemed far too few. In my mind, one hundred parachutes seemed like an acceptable number. Maybe with a few spare ones thrown in for good measure. And as the tough-as-nails space capsule fell through the atmosphere, slowing its rate as it fired off parachute after parachute, Ikhana, NASA’s unmanned Predator drone, allowed people from all over the world to tune in to the event. Live and in real-time via the Internet, the high-flying drone broadcast a birds-eye view of Orion’s fiery re-entry and gentle drop into the Pacific Ocean, 275 miles off the coast of sunny Baja, California. This was a big deal. A first for NASA on multiple levels. And a formidable earning of goodwill as the world congratulated the beleaguered space agency on its triumphant return to the stars.

When I think back on my childhood, on my daydreams of the future and where I thought we as a society would be by now, I am somewhat disillusioned. Not because I am dissatisfied with the present, but because I am unhappy that we all don’t have jetpacks. We were promised jetpacks! We were also promised hoverboards and flying cars and vacations to the Moon and robot confidants. If you had asked me as a child where we would be in 2014, I would of told you that we’d all be living out amongst the stars. But the fact of the matter is we aren’t. We’ve barely left the confines of low-Earth orbit in over a generation. But such is the state of affairs when there is no national vision. No Kennedy-esque mandate to lift our feet off this blue marble we call home. However, I feel there is a silver lining to all this. A sense that the way we speak and act regarding exploring space is about to change. That we are ratcheting-up the national dialog about humanity’s place among the stars….for there is another. There is competition out there and NASA is not the only player in the space exploration game anymore. Companies like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, privately-owned business in direct competition for a chunk of the private-sector space industry, could conceivably accomplish in a decade what has taken NASA a generation or more to achieve. I believe there is no doubt that we will one day walk on Mars and live out amongst the stars for it is in our nature to be curious about our surroundings. And it’s bold new visions like NASA’s Orion exploration program that could take us there. But it isn’t the only way. I’ll take my space adventure like I take my bourbon: Anyway I can. And if that means that it’s some entity other than NASA that charts a path for human expansion into the solar system and beyond, that’s good enough for me. But in the meantime, I’ll keep watching those space launch videos like I was a kid again.

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