NASA's Orion spaceship prepares first test on the road to Mars - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

UPDATE: NASA postpones Orion test launch until Friday morning

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CAPE CANAVERAL, FL (NBC News) - A series of delays held up the maiden launch of NASA's Orion capsule on Thursday, adding some extra suspense to the first test of a spacecraft that's designed to take humans farther than they've ever gone — including to Mars.

The planned 4.5-hour mission — known as Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT-1 — isn't carrying people. It's an uncrewed flight, meant to check critical systems that can't be fully tested on Earth, including the craft's heat shield and parachutes.

The data gathered from more than 1,200 sensors will be factored into the construction of more flightworthy Orion spaceships, with the aim of flying astronauts for the first time in 2021. If NASA holds to its schedule, the cone-shaped spacecraft would send crews to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, and to Mars and its moons starting in the 2030s.

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"We're now on the way to Mars, and that's what's most important," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told NBC News in advance of liftoff.

More than 20,000 spectators were expected to turn out for the launch, and NASA astronauts on the International Space Station were watching closely as well.

"It's a thrilling prospect when you think about actually exploring the solar system," station commander Butch Wilmore said from orbit. "Who knows where it will take us, who knows where it will go? We'll find out as time goes forward, but this first step is a huge one."

Last-minute snags

Minutes before the scheduled launch time of 7:05 a.m. ET, NASA said an unauthorized boat was in a restricted area of the range, east of the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Launch managers also reported a technical issue with the second stage of the United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket.

That mean liftoff would be delayed further into Thursday's launch window, which was to close at 9:44 a.m. ET.

The Delta 4 Heavy is the biggest and arguably the most expensive rocket in America's space fleet: Launch costs account for most of the $370 million price tag for EFT-1. But the massive rocket is required to loft the 23-ton Orion on a two-orbit trip that will loop out as far as 3,600 miles.

Orion's flight marks the first time since the Apollo 17 moonshot in 1972 that NASA has sent any kind of spacecraft eventually meant to carry people that far away from Earth.

On the way down, the craft will blaze through the atmosphere at 20,000 mph, or 80 percent of the speed that a craft returning from the moon would experience. The heat shield will have to withstand temperatures as high as 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The flight plan calls for Orion to splash down in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Baja California. Two recovery ships and an array of helicopters are stationed to pick up the spacecraft and bring it in to Naval Base San Diego. The Orion craft is due to be trucked back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida by Christmas, NASA officials said.

Years of testing ahead

This Orion is flying without some critical pieces, such as a working launch abort tower and service module. Those components are still being developed, and they'll be integrated into the spacecraft for Orion's next test flight in 2018. That flight, known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, will also mark the first use of NASA's Space Launch System — which will trump the Delta 4 Heavy as the world's most powerful rocket.

EM-1 is due to send an uncrewed Orion around the moon and back, in preparation for the first crewed flight in 2021.

Some observers have criticized Orion and the SLS rocket as too costly and slow to build. NASA's program manager for the Orion program, Mark Geyer, told NBC News that development costs for the spacecraft amount to about $1 billion a year — and that budgetary rather than technical considerations are driving the development schedule.

Once Orion and SLS are fully tested, NASA is planning to mount one SLS launch per year, and the giant rocket may be used for robotic interplanetary missions as well as crewed exploration missions.

At the same time, NASA is working with U.S. commercial partners on less expensive space taxis that would be used to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The space agency's current scenario calls for SpaceX and the Boeing Co. to begin such flights in 2017, right around the time that the next Orion test is scheduled.

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