Unlike the commercial crew vehicles - SpaceX's Dragon 2.0 and Boeing's CST-100 - which are being developed to serve as taxis to low earth orbit, where the International Space Station flies, Orion is designed for deep space exploration. This thing is designed to go to the moon, an asteroid, a Lagrange Point, and ultimately Mars. While regular Earth orbit is a major deal in its own right, deep space flight presents a vastly expanded range of challenges, and the ship's got to be built to handle them. I don't think we really appreciate how monumentally capable Apollo was.
Since SLS won't be ready to fly until 2018, and NASA needs to test Orion's complex systems sooner than that, a special unmanned flight, known as Exploration Flight Test 1 - or EFT-1 - was scheduled atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. That's what today's flight is all about: Get Orion into orbit, boost it to a delightfully high orbit, test all its systems in a deep space, high-radiation environment, then dive it back into the atmosphere at 20,000 mph - 2,500 mph faster than a vehicle flying in LEO and roughly as fast as a mission returning from deep space would be flying - and test the heat shield, parachute and recovery systems. Lots of stuff to cover in a 4-and-a-half-hour flight, and the data collected in the process will be crucial to shaping the continued development of the vehicle and the program.
All of which brings me back to the shuttle era. I remember what it felt like to watch Columbia first lift off, an otherworldly sight that in an instant reinforced that something had changed. I stayed glued to the TV, refusing to leave the room until I knew she was safely in orbit.
I got those same chills this morning as the three RS-68A engines lit up and the vehicle took flight. Something changed this morning, too, as the U.S. once again pulled the best of the best together, told them to develop something ridiculously cool, and then let them go fly it.
I'm no rocket scientist, but it's easy to see how what's playing out high above our heads this morning is already inspiring so many others - space-connected and not - to raise the level of their own game.
Your turn: What inspires you?