After being delayed yesterday, the first test flight of NASA’s Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV) is going off without a hitch. Designed for manned spaceflight, the Orion is still being flown without a crew aboard during these early test runs, but is supposed to fly with a crew in the next decade. Orion has made its first of two orbits and ignited its second stage to push it into a higher earth orbit. After it completes its second orbit the Orion will attempt re-entry to test its heat shield and parachutes.

“Everything going perfectly on the maiden flight of Orion,” said Rob Navias on NASA TV.

NASA's Orion Test Flight 'Going Perfectly'

Orion suited up with 1200 sensors

To get a clear idea of what’s going on inside the Orion, NASA put 1200 different sensors throughout the spacecraft and the cabin to test for temperature and radiation levels among other things to make sure that a crew could safely fly with it in future missions. This is especially important as the Orion passes through the Van Allen belt, which has extremely high levels of radiation, and during re-entry when the spacecraft will be subjected to extreme temperatures.

The next mission, currently scheduled for 2018, would send an Orion rocket into orbit around the moon (also unmanned). Even if everything goes as planned for the next several years we won’t see astronauts flying aboard an Orion rocket until 2021 when they would use it to meet up with the asteroid that NASA is planning to catch and put into lunar orbit by 2019. Sometimes it all sounds far-fetched, except that NASA continues to achieve the incremental goals that it sets for itself.

Orion ultimately intended for a mission to Mars

Since the Space Shuttle program was scrapped for being too expensive and inefficient, NASA has relied on Russian Soyuz rockets to travel back and forth to the International Space Station, so developing its own manned spacecraft (the Orion is being manufactured by Lockheed Martin) is an important part of NASA’s long-term plans to send a manned mission to Mars.

The dream of sending people to another planet won’t come true anytime soon (and bringing them back may not be part of the deal), but with each subsequent step NASA is showing that it’s not complete science fiction either.