If you haven’t heard, NASA recently awarded commercial contracts to two private companies, SpaceX and Boeing, to begin ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Assuming, of course, that their Dragon and CST-100 spacecraft, respectively, prove themselves safe for human occupants during the upcoming certification tests. But I don’t think anyone has much doubt that they will. The goal is for this “space taxi” service to begin within two years, by 2017.
This is a major deal for a couple of reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly, it will break the current U.S. reliance on the Russians to get our people into space, and given how shaky relations with Russia have been recently, the sooner we can do that, the better. But the other big thing is that, for the first time in the 50-some years since Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight, people will be going into orbit on spaceships designed, built, and operated by commercial entities rather than a government agency. (SpaceShipOne and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic tourism business don’t count, as they don’t go high enough to achieve orbit.) This is a major shift of paradigm, and potentially tantamount to the genuine opening of the Final Frontier.
However, that doesn’t mean NASA is getting out of the sending-humans-to-space business. While the commercial efforts (SpaceX’s Dragon, in particular) have drawn everyone’s attention in recent years, the agency has quietly continued development of its own next-generation spaceship, the Orion Crew Vehicle. And now Orion is about ready to make its debut, with an unmanned test flight scheduled for December 4. The capsule — which basically looks like a scaled-up version of the old Apollo command modules and is intended to carry astronauts deeper into space than ever before, possibly even to Mars — will be blasted into orbit aboard a Delta-IV heavy-lift booster rocket. It will circle the Earth twice, rising far above the space station’s altitude and passing twice through the Van Allen radiation belts, and then re-enter the atmosphere for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, all to confirm that the ship’s critical systems function as expected. (This is explained in more detail in a dramatic new video released by NASA last week.)
Now here’s the fun part: The venerable old space agency wants people to feel invested somehow in Orion, to give them a sense of participation in its flights, up to and including that trip to Mars, so it’s offering a chance for us all to ride along by proxy. Simply go to the “Send Your Name to Mars” website and register your name, country of origin, postal code, and an email address. The collected names will be encoded on a microchip that will travel aboard the Orion on this first flight as well as future missions. With each trip into the black, you’ll accrue “frequent flyer miles,” which I suspect will probably arrive in your inbox as part of a newsletter or something. Yeah, it’s a gimmick, and kind of a cheesy one at that, but I like it. I like the idea that some little part of me — even something as inconsequential as a few bits of data that represent the string of letters by which I identify myself — is going up there. I’ve done this before — my name and Anne’s are aboard the New Horizons probe that is now less than a year away from Pluto — and now my name and hers will be on Orion too. And just to prove it, here are our “boarding passes”:
I think you’ll probably be able to continue submitting names throughout the duration of the Orion program, however long that turns out to be, but if you want your name aboard the first test flight, you’ll need to register by Halloween, October 31.
Let the countdown commence!