This Thursday, the capsule that has the best chance of eventually taking humans to Mars will finally go into space.
It's been a long time coming for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which grew out of several earlier canceled projects that were started in the wake of the Columbia accident in 2004. But NASA says it's time to let Orion orbit the Earth, albeit without any humans on board (this time).
The "multi-purpose" bit of Orion is important—as far as NASA is concerned, this is the space capsule of both the near and relatively far future. Orion won't be going to the International Space Station—NASA has SpaceX and its Dragon capsule (and whatever Boeing eventually dreams up) for that. Instead, Orion will be used for NASA's controversial asteroid-lassoing mission, which is planned for the early 2020s and, eventually, for a manned mission to Mars.
So Thursday's test is pretty important. NASA has seemingly given up on low-Earth orbit and is focusing on further-flung adventures and exploration. That move has been somewhat controversial, considering that, for the time being, American astronauts have to rent out seats on Russian Soyuz ships to get to and from the ISS. Considering that Russia and the US don't have the greatest of relationships right now, Congress isn't happy about that.
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