America’s first human space program began in 1959 with the Mercury Program. The Mercury Program’s 3rd mission carried Alan Shepard in the Freedom 7 space capsule one hundred and sixteen miles to space at a speed of fifty one hundred and eighty miles per hour, mission duration was fifteen minutes. That flight took place on May 5th, 1961, fifty three years ago. The Mercury program had 3 objectives, orbit a man around earth, learn how humans functioned in space and how they tolerated microgravity, a simple mission by today’s standards. The capsule was six and a half feet long and six feet two inches wide, really small by today’s standards. While doing research on this article, I discovered NASA evolved and in 1991 spun off the technology that became the commercial adult diaper. We all eventually learned astronauts had to use diapers, a humbling fact that reminds all of us how fragile humans are.
Some of you may remember the chimpanzees Ham, also wearing a diaper, was launched to space prior to Alan Shepard. The Redstone rocket launch before Ham’s launch made it only 10 feet off the pad before exploding. The next launch that sent Ham to space also uncovered some problems that NASA Administrator Werner von Braun wanted to fix. So he ordered one more unmanned launch before sending Shepard to space. It was between this last unmanned launch and the May 5th Freedom 7 launch, that Russia sent Uri Gagarin to obit. Shepard was a test pilot, as were all the Mercury 7 astronauts. They understood the space program was not just a technology demonstration program, but also a part of our country’s cold war strategy. Demonstrating superiority in space was an overwhelming priority for both Russia and the United States. Missiles were created to launch nuclear bombs, and the potential survival of the human race as we knew it was part of this space age. A new space age, one of deep space exploration by humans is coming. December 4th is the first unmanned test flight of the Orion space craft.
As in all human space programs, small incremental test flights are necessary. Many nations now have the capability to launch unmanned space craft to orbit. Only the United States, Russia, and China are able to launch humans to space. We are still cooperating with the Russians in the space program, the Chinese are not part of our space program for reasons of national security.
Congress has tasked NASA once again, to do what only NASA can do. Create a spacecraft and a capsule to eventually take humans to Mars in the 2030s. This is the first mission for humans beyond low earth orbit since the end of the Apollo program in 1972. Tall order, but on December 4th the Orion capsule will take its first test flight, a two orbit four hour journey. As NASA press releases describe the purpose of the Orion spacecraft, it is designed to meet the evolving needs of our nation’s deep space exploration program for decades to come. It will be the safest, most advanced spacecraft ever built, and it will be flexible and capable enough to take us to a variety of destinations.
You also may remember the Orion’s fully integrated launch abort escape system (LAS) was tested at White Sands Missile Range in 2010. Lockheed Martin is the contractor for NASA on this system. The December 4th launch is unmanned and the launch abort system will not be used during this test. Orion’s unique life support systems, including the oxygen and pressure systems inside the capsule, propulsion, heat shield and avionics systems in combination with other elements will enable extended duration deep space missions. NASA White Sands Test Facility is NASA’s go to test site for life support systems. While Alan Shepard was able to do some manual flying of Freedom 7, the avionics tests in the Orion will allow NASA to learn even more about how to continuously update the flight control systems as the Orion moves through the next fifteen years.
The planned uncrewed orbital flight test of Orion on Thursday will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world, the United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 Heavy. The rocket will launch the spacecraft 3,000 miles into space in order to reach speeds of more than 20,000 mph before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. We have come a long way since we launched Freedom 7 one hundred and sixteen miles high at just over five thousand mph. This test will provide engineers with invaluable data on Orion’s performance in every phase of launch, re-entry and landing. The long range plan, according to NASA, includes destinations near-Earth asteroids, our own Moon, the moons of Mars and eventually Mars itself, Orion will carry astronauts into a new era of exploration. Go to http://www.nasa.gov/orion/ early Thursday morning and catch the launch. It is scheduled for 7:05am EST.