Running a day late, a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket roared to life and vaulted into orbit Friday, boosting NASA’s first Orion deep space exploration craft into space for a long-awaited unmanned test of the vehicle the agency hopes will one day carry astronauts to an asteroid and, eventually, to Mars.
Coming nearly three-and-a-half years after the final space shuttle launch, the maiden flight of Orion marked a major milestone for NASA, the first test of a new U.S. spacecraft designed to carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit since the final Apollo moon mission more than four decades ago.
While NASA’s budget is constrained and flights to Mars are not expected before the mid-2030s (at the earliest), the launch Friday generated widespread interest and served as a major morale-booster for NASA and its contractor workforce.
“Its biggest significance is symbolic,” space historian John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told CBS News. “This is the first time a piece of hardware intended to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit is being tested or used, for 42 years, since Apollo 17.
“It’s a very small but real, tangible step towards eventually sending people out to the moon, beyond and eventually to Mars.”
Speaking from orbit Thursday, Barry “Butch” Wilmore, commander of the International Space Station, said the Orion mission was “a thrilling prospect when you think about actually exploring the solar system.
“Who knows where it will take us? Who knows where it will go?” he said of Orion. “We’ll find out as time goes forward. But this first step is a huge one on that road.”
The heavy-lift Delta 4’s three hydrogen-fueled main engines ignited and throttled up at 7:05 a.m. EST (GMT-5). Generating nearly 2 million pounds of thrust and a fiery torrent of exhaust, the Delta 4