NASA has announced official plans to put human beings on Mars -- sometime in the decade of the 2030s. But the first step in that mind-boggling mission will take place on Thursday, December 4, when NASA launches its new Orion spacecraft on an initial test flight, which will take the for-now-unmanned space vessel 3,600 miles above the surface of the Earth -- 14 times higher than the International Space Station -- as it orbits the planet twice then reenters the atmosphere and splashes down in the Pacific Ocean.
At least that's the plan as detailed by NASA managers at a Wednesday press conference, at which they revealed the plans for a long-anticipated mission to Mars by live astronauts. NASA Orion manager Mark Geyer said that the purpose of Thursday's flight is to discover problems with the ship.
"Thursday is a huge day for us," Geyer said. "Part of me hopes that everything is perfect, but really on a flight test like this, we want to discover things that are beyond our modeling capability and beyond our expertise so we learn and fix it."
Watch the launch of the Orion, the first phase in the 20-year NASA project to put humans on Mars live online from Cape Canaveral in Florida in the viewer below, or at this link, courtesy of PBS. The launch is scheduled for 7:05 am Eastern Standard Time Thursday morning.
If you're excited by the possibilities of space travel, you will definitely want to catch this broadcast. Your next chance to watch the launch of an Orion test flight will not come for another three years.
The first flight with astronauts on board is not scheduled until 2020.
The Orion will reenter the Earth's atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour, requiring 11 parachutes to slow its fall as it aims for its target about 600 miles off the coast of San Diego.
Though 3,600 miles into space is a long way up, of course that distance is nothing compared to the trip to Mars. At its closest to Earth, Mars is about 35 million miles from Earth.
The time it would take a manned mission to Mars to reach the Red Planet is estimated at 150 days, which means the spacecraft would have to average about 10,000 miles per hour for the whole flight.
While the Apollo moon missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s carried three astronauts each, the Mars mission will take four space travelers on its journey to become the first human beings to step onto another world that is not a satellite of our own planet.
But the NASA Mars mission will not be the first time that the Orion spacecraft takes human astronauts to another celestial body. NASA plans to land astronauts on asteroids between Mars and Earth sometime in the 2020s.