NASA green-lit a plan Wednesday to send astronauts into lunar orbit missions to test out Orion, the capsule many hope will be the first to carry humans to Mars. It will be the first time astronauts have left low-Earth orbit since the Apollo missions.
The Orion project has completed the "key decision point C (KDP-C)" approval process, a critical step which gauges the progress made so far and gives the stamp of approval to proceed forward. It may seem like a lot of bureaucratic minutiae (and it kind of is), but beneath it all, NASA has confirmed that in less than eight years it will be sending humans around the far side of the moon to test out the capsule that will likely take us to Mars.
The KDP-C approval gives the Orion team the go-ahead to keep working on its next two planned exploration missions: EM-1 and EM-2. EM-1 will send an unmanned Orion to loop around the Moon and return to Earth. For EM-2, Orion will carry up to four astronauts into lunar orbit, hopefully to check out an asteroid or boulder that has already been brought back by a robotic spacecraft—a much-debated project.
The planned launch for EM-1 is still 2018, Robert Lightfoot, NASA's associate administrator, said during a conference call with reporters. And while NASA is hoping to launch EM-2 by the original planned date of 2021, the team has worked in a little wiggle room in case of unforeseen setbacks, meaning the capsule will launch no later than April, 2023.
"We're not seeing any issues but we have to account for those [potential setbacks], because we've got a lot of runway in front of us here before we get there and those things can pop up," Lightfoot said.
Little "unknown unknowns," as associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William Gerstenmaier put it, have already emerged. A change in the capsule shape, for example, is causing certain panels to flatten out instead of retaining their curve. If enough of those little setbacks crop up, it could push EM-2 to its deadline.
Though we're still a good 20 years out from a manned mission to Mars, EM-2 is just one of many important steps to getting us there. We regularly have astronauts in space on the International Space Station, but NASA hasn't sent a manned ship beyond low-Earth orbit since the 70s. If we want to go to Mars, we need to test out the systems, hardware, software, and planning required to send astronauts more than a few hours away from the surface of the Earth, Gerstenmaier said. Sending a manned Orion ship to the "proving ground" around the moon is a great way to learn what needs to be done.
"Orion's first role is to be that tool that will help us push human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and let us learn the skills [...] to start moving out towards Mars," Gerstenmaier said. "It has a very, very bright future for us."