NASA Orion Spaceship Ready To Blast Off On Maiden Flight, Next Stop — Mars?

The NASA Orion spacecraft may look like giant beer keg, but the debut of NASA's next-generation spaceship is the first step in what could end up as the first manned mission to Mars. And last week, the roomy space capsule moved into position for for its maiden voyage, scheduled for December 4 — potentially the most significant NASA launch since the debut of the space shuttle in 1981.

The Orion spacecraft will ultimately be capable of carrying four astronauts for a three-week spaceflight — not enough to travel between planets in the solar system, but nonetheless the most ambitious space mission yet attempted by NASA.

But the December 4 flight will carry no crew members, and is designed as a test mission in which the Orion will fly 3,500 miles into space — 15 times higher than the orbiting International Space Station — and reach a speed of nearly 20,000 miles per hour as it plunges back into Earth's atmosphere after completing two orbits around the planet.

On October 1, NASA's new, massive Delta 4 Heavy Rocket was moved onto launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The largest rocket currently in use by NASA, the Delta 4 will lift the Orion capsule into space for its first flight.

The third section of the blastoff mechanism is a new feature known as the Launch Abort System. The innovative safety feature is designed to jettison the Orion far from the launch pad just in case something goes wrong with the Delta rocket, keeping the astronauts inside well out of harm's way.

With no crew on board December 4, the launch abort system will ace its first test — with no lives at stake.

While the Delta rocket that will blast off on the December test mission has enough power to lift 70 tons beyond Earth's gravitational pull and into space, the rockets eventually used to launch fully crewed missions will have a lift capacity of a whopping 143 tons.

"We've been working toward this launch for months, and we're in the final stretch," said NASA's Bob Cabana on October 1. "Orion is almost complete and the rocket that will send it into space is on the launch pad. We're 64 days away from taking the next step in deep space exploration."

[Image: NASA]