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Why Today’s Successful Orion Mission Is Exciting News for the Future of Human Space Exploration

To infinity, and beyond!

NASA’s test of the Orion deep space crew capsule had a rough start with a failed launch yesterday, but today’s retry was a complete success. Any successful space mission is exciting by itself, but for this one in particular, the really exciting part is what it means for the future.

After yesterday’s technical issues, this morning’s launch went off without a hitch to send the Orion capsule on its first voyage to space, where it lapped the Earth and came back at high speeds so it could test its landing abilities to eventually bring astronauts to deep space locations like asteroids around the Moon and Mars. If you weren’t up to watch it live this morning, here it is taking off and making history while we were hitting our snooze buttons.

And an awe-inspiring close-up of the initial launch:

Followed hours later by its successful splashdown back on Earth:

Orion hit Earth’s atmosphere moving at about 20,000 mph, and its heat shields withstood around 4,000º F. NASA’s Space Launch System partner Lockheed Martin said in a news release that the test will verify the function of the heat shield, the proper separation of rockets and other parts of the spacecraft during flight, the navigation system, radiation control, and environment control inside the crew module, as well as the parachutes and recovery systems.

Lockheed Martin vice president and Orion program manager Mike Hawes said,

Throughout the flight we recorded data from the spacecraft, and later this month, when it arrives back to Kennedy Space Center, we’ll pull select components off the spacecraft to include in our overall analysis. The insights we’ll gain from today’s flight are invaluable for Orion’s future. Meanwhile the team will continue their work preparing for Exploration Mission-1, when Orion will be integrated and tested with the Space Launch System rocket for the first time.

The entire mission succeeded flawlessly, but why is this test flight so exciting? Well, as I’ve mentioned, Orion is not only the ship that will take our astronauts to places that humans have never been before, but today’s test is the first time in a very, very long time that we’ve sent a crew-capable spacecraft a great distance from the Earth.

Sure, we’ve been to the Moon, but last manned mission there was in 1972. It’s amazing that astronauts spend extended periods of time in space aboard the International Space Station, and the things they do there are important for humanity’s future in space. But for non-robotic space exploration, only traveling to low-Earth orbit for decades after getting to the Moon was kind of a step backwards or a stall at the very least.

While Orion has been in the works for a long time, and those working on it have been quietly making the future more exciting every day, today’s launch was the first demonstrable step in doing something more impressive in space than we’ve ever done before.

Oh, and curiosity is pretty excited to have some company up there on Mars.

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Dan Van Winkle (he) is an editor and manager who has been working in digital media since 2013, first at now-defunct Geekosystem (RIP), and then at The Mary Sue starting in 2014, specializing in gaming, science, and technology. Outside of his professional experience, he has been active in video game modding and development as a hobby for many years. He lives in North Carolina with Lisa Brown (his wife) and Liz Lemon (their dog), both of whom are the best, and you will regret challenging him at Smash Bros.