While things have been a bit depressing of late for NASA enthusiasts, there may be a note of hope on the horizon as NASA is in the process of testing both rocket engines and parachutes for its upcoming Orion capsule and Orion Space Launch System, both of which are expected to come together and give Orion its first flight in 2014.
The 2014 flight is said to be unmanned, with a special focus on launching a spacecraft at a height of about 3600 miles above the Earth's surface. Given that the International Space Station is currently operating at a maximum height of around 255 miles (410 kilometers) above the Earth's surface, that's a pretty good range. It would actually, according to reports, represent the farthest mission that NASA has staged since Apollo 17 went to the moon back in 1972.
Speaking of the moon, that's the ultimate goal with Orion: NASA is planning to use Orion to get Americans back on the moon by 2021, and as such, has been actively testing the parachutes and rocket engines that are likely to find themselves used in such a system. This time, NASA even went so far as to deliberately hobble one of the parachutes and prevent its opening. Yet despite this handicap, the remaining parachutes slowed the descent sufficiently that such an incident would have been survivable for any astronauts inside.
This was actually the eighth such test undertaken, and later this year, NASA will start testing the post-splashdown recovery process. It will be somewhat different from previous installments, as NASA will be using a recovery ship rather than a helicopter. Additional tests will continue on the J-2X (News - Alert) engine at Mississippi's Stennis Space Center.
There are no doubt many who are gratified by the news that NASA's planning a return to the Moon, and amid the various bits of news about space travel in general--Mars rover missions, asteroid mining--comes a lot more hope overall. Not only for the future of America's space program, which is certainly off its highs, but for America in general.
There have been some that posit that the only real way to get out of the global economic crevasse in which we find ourselves is not to consider how to further divide the current global pie, but rather, focus on making entirely new pies. As Earth begins to run short of resources, turning our collective attention beyond the "surly bonds of Earth", as the poem goes, to focus outward to the potential wealth of minerals and resources located not only in our own solar system but in our own galaxy as a whole is a smart idea.
The ultimate future of such an endeavor is still to be realized, but we need to start somewhere. This is as good a place and a time as any to do so, but it likely would have been better starting 20 years ago.
Edited by Brooke Neuman