Forty two years ago this month, Eugene Cernan became the last man to walk on the moon, as he boarded the lunar module Challenger to begin the 250,000 mile journey back to earth. Astonishingly, not since that last Apollo 17 mission has an American space craft designed to carry humans left low earth orbit – the realm of the now defunct space shuttles and the international space station. Until now.

The planned launch of Orion, the craft that one day may take men to Mars may have been delayed. But soon, perhaps as soon as tomorrow, the obstacles of a blocked valve, gusty winds and stray boats offshore from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral will be resolved and Orion will blast into space. The mission will last a mere four hours, and no humans will be on board.

But, carried by a Delta-IV rocket, the most powerful currently available to Nasa, Orion will penetrate 3,600 miles into space, 15 times further away than the space station. It will circle the earth twice, before re-entering the atmosphere at a speed of 20,000 mph. The mission will test the most crucial and dangerous areas of a real Mars mission: launch, the separation of the landing module from the crew module, and re-entry itself, when the temperature of the craft’s protective shield will reach 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Orion however is not merely the latest and most ambitious venture in the history of Nasa, founded in 1958. It offers the best, and maybe the last, chance of rekindling the national excitement and sense of purpose that drove the Apollo programme and the series of moon landings between 1969 and 1972.

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