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Seven facts about NASA's Orion spacecraft that could take astronauts to Mars (w/video)

Just in case you wondered whatever happened to the American space program, NASA is about to launch a new craft designed to carry humans far beyond Earth.

The Orion spacecraft is set to launch Thursday from Cape Canaveral. It will be an unmanned, inaugural test flight.

The stubby space capsule doesn't look like much, but its mission is audacious — to eventually send U.S. astronauts to distant locations such as asteroids, the moon or even Mars.

Here are seven things to know about NASA's newest chapter.

1. Can I see this launch from the Tampa Bay area?

Quite possibly, if skies are clear. Orion will be launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, which produces a fiery trail that could be visible across the state. Look to the east and slightly north. The launch time is set for 7:05 a.m. — just about sunrise, incidentally — but could be as late as 9:44 a.m. "In all probability you will see it over in the Tampa Bay area, because the Delta IV Heavy is a very large rocket," said NASA spokesman George Diller. That depends, of course, on cloud cover.

2. Where is Orion going?

On this test flight, NASA says the unmanned capsule will travel 3,600 miles away from Earth, orbiting the planet twice. It will re-enter Earth's atmosphere at 20,000 mph, withstanding heat as high as 4,000 degrees, before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

3. What's new about Orion?

For 30 years, the United States flew space shuttles, which were designed to orbit a couple of hundred miles above our planet. In other words, the shuttles' distance above Earth's surface often was roughly the same as the distance from St. Petersburg to Miami.

Like Apollo missions that took the first humans to the moon, Orion capsules are designed to take astronauts far beyond Earth's gravitational pull, for space exploration.

4. So, when do we go to Mars?

Not any time soon. This test launch is a first step. An Orion mission to carry astronauts is not planned until 2021. A firm timetable does not exist.

5. Will this spacecraft actually take humans to Mars?

The answer is unknown. Although the United States, the Soviet Union the European Space Agency and India have sent unmanned spacecraft to Mars, it's a much bigger challenge to send humans more than 30 million miles away. So is getting them back.

Among the problems: Humans can lose more than 1 percent of their bone mass per month in space, and a round-trip to Mars could take three years. Also, the effects of cosmic radiation could be fatal without proper precautions.

Plus, NASA envisions that Orion would launch atop a new rocket that is still in development. There is no guarantee future political leaders will want to continue this program for decades into the future, especially if cost overruns or delays occur.

6. Why does Orion look like a retro 1960s space capsule?

That conelike shape is a safe, tried-and-true design. Remember, the Columbia space shuttle orbiter suffered fatal damage because of a piece of foam that fell off part of the rocket called the external tank. But the Orion capsule will ride on top of a rocket — and foam isn't going to fall up.

7. Could this spacecraft blow up, like two others recently?

Yes. Igniting enough rocket fuel to send thousands of pounds hurtling into space is not an inherently safe thing to do. That's why no people will be aboard this test flight. Additional test flights will reduce, but not eliminate, the danger.

Information from the Orlando Sentinel was used in this report.

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