While waiting for Orion, humans look to Mars

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Orion's launch was aborted this morning with three minutes and 9 seconds to go.

The planned launch of the Orion spacecraft Thursday morning was delayed until Friday. High winds and a valve issue prevented NASA from launching the craft within the scheduled window of about two hours.

When Orion does lift off, it will be the first step in a long plan to take humans to Mars, said Matt Benjamin, manager of education programs at the Fiske Planetarium at CU Boulder.

Benjamin has worked with Lockheed and scientists from CU Boulder on a mission to take astronauts to the far side of the moon. He told “Colorado Matters” the real test for the unmanned spacecraft will be whether it is suitable for bringing astronauts home safely from deep space. That makes the heat shield, which was built in Colorado, particularly important.

"You've got to go far away to come back fast,” he said. “Coming back fast means that you generate the heat to really stress test that." Orion's planned velocity is about 20,000 miles per hour. At that speed, it would be possible to fly from New York City to Tokyo in 20 minutes. 

Orion's other big test will be to establish how safe its interior is for humans at distances very far from Earth, Benjamin said. There will probably be five or six years of unmanned tests before Orion has astronauts inside.

"You want to be sure that the environments can be sustainable before you go putting astronauts in them right off the bat," he said.

Orion also has a diversity of capabilities, making it "a Swiss army knife" for the space program.

"Some people say it's Apollo on steroids and at face value, that's probably a fair depiction of it," Benjamin said. "Really, it's designed to do so much more than Apollo did."

The Orion spacecraft is part of President Barack Obama's initiative to visit an asteroid by 2025 and to visit Mars with humans by 2030.

"Keep in mind, when Orion goes to its farthest point, it'll be roughly 35,000 miles from this planet," Benjamin said. "That'll be the farthest any human spaceship or capsule has gone since 1972 and Apollo 17."