Is there a new Space Race on the horizon?
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NASA is launching its boldest test flight in decades this week. An unmanned capsule will head off on Thursday to reach a distance of 3,600 miles from Earth—the farthest space mission with a craft designed to accommodate humans since the final Apollo 17 trip to the moon in 1972.
Called Orion, the program will mark a key initial step toward a human mission to Mars. Orion is also designed to excite the public’s imagination for deep-space exploration, much as the Apollo moon missions sparked an interest in space and produced civilian engineering triumphs. With the first test flight on Thursday, NASA wants to make it abundantly clear that much of the hardware that can get humans to Mars already exists and is ready to fly.
“My hope is that when we fly the capsule on Thursday, it will energize the public and energize that middle schooler [who] isn’t quite sure what he wants to do, but he likes math and science,” says Richard Boitnott, an engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center.