NASA launches stage one of its mission to Mars

After three years without any vehicle for manned space flight, NASA is taking the first step towards Mars with a new spacecraft, Orion. But is the programme worth its astronomical cost?

They sent the first men to walk on the moon. They launched the Hubble telescope into space to gaze far beyond our galaxy. When most homes didn’t have colour TVs, they guided a probe through the asteroid belt of Saturn. Yet for all NASA’s staggering achievements in the past, today it does not have a spacecraft that can carry people.

Since the Space Shuttle’s final flight in 2011, America has lacked the ability to send its astronauts into space and has instead had to rely on its old space rival Russia to carry them. To some Americans, this is a huge embarrassment.

Yet this week NASA will try to get back into the space game. On Friday, after some delays, it hopes to test its 'Orion’ capsule, a new manned shuttle, this time without passengers. The craft should circle twice around Earth at an altitude of almost 6,000 kilometres and re-enter the atmosphere at speeds of 30,000 kilometres an hour, before landing safely in the Pacific Ocean.

The flight will give engineers a chance to test Orion’s vital heat shield, which must cope with temperatures of 2,000C, almost double the temperature of volcanic magma. Once NASA finishes its new giant rocket called Space Launch System (SLS), Orion will first ferry astronauts to the International Space Station; then, in the 2030s, it will send humans to Mars.

NASA once regularly sent astronauts beyond Earth’s atmosphere. But space flight comes with huge risks. In 1986 the Space Shuttle ‘Challenger’ exploded just 73 seconds after lift-off, killing all seven astronauts on board. In 2003, seven more died when the Space Shuttle ‘Columbia’ disintegrated upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

These tragedies brought profound shocks to a nation that has prided itself on space exploration. But if the Orion test is successful, NASA’s days of ambitious, big-budget human flights look set to return.

One small step for NASA...

This has been an incredible year for space-exploration, with the Rosetta probe landing on a comet and India achieving space-travel on a shoestring budget. Some are delighted that NASA is ready to reclaim its place as the Earth’s most innovative space agency. With its prestige and its huge potential funding from the US public, NASA has the capability to do what other governments and private agencies cannot.

Yet others think it is outrageous that the US public is footing the bill for NASA’s Mars mission. Space travel should be left to private companies — there are enough of them interested now. The new SLS will cost at least $22 billion, which could have paid for the healthcare of hundreds of thousands of people. With companies like SpaceX already gearing up to go to Mars, the US government is wasting its money.

You Decide

  1. Is NASA’s project to start sending people into space again a good idea?
  2. Will ordinary people travel to space in the next 100 years or will it only be an option for astronauts and the super-rich?

Activities

  1. In pairs, imagine you are in charge of NASA and you can choose to attempt any space mission. What would be the most important or interesting mission you would want to go on and why?
  2. Write a speech arguing either why NASA’s mission to Mars is a good idea and it should be given a bigger budget or why it is a waste of money.

Some People Say...

“NASA’s real mission is to swell America’s already bloated ego.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should we care about sending humans to Mars?
It would be a huge technological achievement. The USSR first landed Mars 3, an unmanned probe, back in 1971. Yet although humans made the 384,400-kilometre journey to the moon in 1969, the minimum distance to Mars is 54.6 million kilometres, which makes travelling there much more daunting. After a successful test-flight of Orion, the journey will look much more possible.
But might others arrive on Mars before NASA?
The private company SpaceX plans to reach the red planet in 2026, which could be a decade earlier than NASA. China plans to establish a permanent colony on the moon by 2030, and this year India joined the space nations by sending a satellite into orbit around Mars. With so many new space competitors, NASA may have to rush if it wants to make it to Mars first.

Word Watch

Hubble
The telescope has been in low orbit since 1990 and sends back 840gb worth of incredible photos from outside of our galaxy every month. It has made numerous revelatory observations, detecting dark matter and even the first organic molecule outside our solar system.
NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration was established in 1958 and entered into a space race for prestige with America’s rival superpower, the Soviet Union.
International Space Station
The ISS can carry six astronauts at a time and is used as a research laboratory. Various crews have been occupying the ISS for the last 14 years.
Rosetta
In November, the European Space Agency became the first organisation to land a probe on a comet. While the probe’s power ran out in the darkness of the landing site, it is hoped the solar-powered batteries will kick in when the comet comes closer to the sun.
SpaceX
The private agency has yet to land on the moon, but has plans to reach Mars in 12 years. The journey there would take 200 days, before facing the biggest challenge, which is landing safely on the planet.

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