SLIDESHOW: A closeup look at NASA's Orion spacecraft - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SLIDESHOW: A closeup look at NASA's Orion spacecraft

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (WDRB) -- "It feels like the old days again."

The words came from a NASA employee -- I didn't get her name -- but she was looking out across the mad cacophony of reporters, photographers and social media ambassadors who busied themselves about the NASA news office at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday morning.

Whether she was referring to the days of the Apollo Moon landings (she wasn't old enough) or the space shuttle program, she was probably right. Because Wednesday is a bit like Christmas Eve at NASA. Tomorrow, the space agency hopes it will get the Christmas present it has been excited about for years: the first successful test flight of Orion, NASA's new space capsule, that -- if successful -- will ultimately take astronauts to the Moon and Mars.

Do those sound like lofty milestones? A little too far off? Then try this on for size: If Orion flies successfully when it launches just after 7 a.m. tomorrow, the unmanned capsule will orbit the Earth twice, traveling 14 times higher than the International Space Station. That is the first human-rated spacecraft to travel that distance since the Apollo 17 capsule in the early 1970s.

The common misnomer is that Orion is NASA's replacement for the space shuttle. It's not. The space shuttle was NASA's transportation vehicle to get humans into low Earth orbit -- to the International Space Station and to repair satellites. In short, it was a space taxi, good for only short jaunts, like the taxi you would take from the convention center to your hotel in Las Vegas.

NASA, for all intents and purposes, is no longer in that business. There is no replacement for the space shuttle, and there are no plans for any. That train is now being driven by private companies, SpaceX and Boeing, both of which recently won the coveted "space taxi" contract, and are expected to begin ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station in 2017, ending the United States' reliance on Russian Soyuz capsules.

Orion, on the other hand, is not a space taxi. It's the Mayflower.

The people in the NASA news office know it, and they're excited. It was my first visit to the center, but I can tell you from the reactions of others that this is the most action this place has seen for a long time. And it's not just photogs shouting for a white balance or reporters jockeying for liveshot space in front of the launch pad. This time, NASA admits it is trying something new. It has invited 150 social media enthusiasts to be here in the news office to cover the event, along with the regular media. There are rows of them in the newsroom, sitting at stations with their laptops madly typing away, bouncing ideas off each other, sipping Coca-Cola and strategizing about how early they should be at the center tomorrow to catch the bus to the launch viewing area.

Many of them are not with any traditional "mainstream" media outlet. Some are freelancers. Many are bloggers. There is one teenager here with her own Web site who swears she's gonna be the first person to Mars.

But one thing is certain: these are the people who get it. They're the enthusiasts. Their laptops have NASA logos plastered to them. They're the ones who can sit glued to a press conference about capsule heat shield dynamics and not bat an eye.

During a press conference a few moments ago, one of them -- a freelancer -- stood and prefaced his question by telling NASA officials just how thankful he was to even be there, asking questions alongside the regular media. He was met by applause. Make no mistake: the media landscape is changing.

There have been numerous press conferences and special events planned all week. For me, it began with a visit to Orion herself, perched atop Pad SLC-37B, the closely-guarded pad that, decades ago, was host to some of the Saturn V Apollo launches. Getting there meant going through an accreditation process weeks ago, flashing my badge to the guy at the gate, and boarding a bus filled with local, national and international media.

The guy I sat next to was Russian, and when I told him I was from Kentucky, he chatted excitedly about the Derby and Colonel Sanders.

NASA administrator Charlie Bolden was at the launch pad to greet us and led what amounted to a space exploration pep rally of sorts.

"I don't need to tell you all, but what you see behind us is what I would call history in the making," Bolden said, pointing to Orion on the pad. "Tomorrow is a giant day. It's a huge day for us."

The Orion capsule is expected to lift off aboard a Delta IV Heavy rocket shortly after 7 a.m. Thursday (as of the time of this writing, weather forecasts put the odds of launch at 70 percent.) It is expected to orbit the Earth twice, traveling roughly 14 times as high as the International Space Station, then re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, traveling at 80 percent the speed it would travel if it was returning from the Moon. If all goes well, it will splash down off the coast of California. The unmanned flight is expected to take roughly five hours.

Bolden said that during the flight, the Orion project will have to pass four major tests: 1) NASA must demonstrate that the capsule's heat shield will work, despite re-entering the atmosphere at speeds much greater than a typical return flight from the International Space Station, 2) the guidance and navigation systems must perform satisfactorily during flight, 3) the parachutes must deploy (it's kind of all for naught if they don't), and, 4) the U.S. Navy must be able to successfully recover the capsule in the waters off Baja.

"You can't have a good day unless you take a chance," Bolden said. "There's a real easy way to have a safe day: don't go fly. I don't like that. I like having big days. And in order to have a big day, you've got to take a big risk. And that's a big vehicle back there. If you haven't recognized it, that is a big vehicle."

The plan doesn't end there. In a few years, Bolden said people will be aboard Orion. It will take them on missions to lunar orbit -- again, for the first time since the 70s -- and then ultimately to Mars.

Members of the media were quick to point out the possibility that Bolden's vision of eventually getting an astronaut to Mars far exceeds the budget allotted to NASA in the next five years, but Bolden was also quick to respond with a challenge of his own.

"If we didn't want to go to Mars, we shouldn't have done Apollo," he said.

"We make impossible things possible," he added. "We turn science fiction into science fact. If you don't like that, tell us to quit. But until you tell us to quit, we're going to keep doing it. And we like it. We're excited about it."

Even the character Elmo from the show Sesame Street showed up in the NASA news office today (a pretty amazing feat in and of itself, since he doesn't have legs.) In what was certainly a first for this reporter, I not only interviewed a muppet, but a NASA astronaut and a muppet in the same shot. In fact, I think pretty much everyone here did, resulting in a small choir of giggling Elmo voices permeating the press office this afternoon as various media members replayed their video.

It's good to be here in all the excitement -- the live trucks, the bloggers, the muppets -- but the best part is expected to come tomorrow. As a guy who grew up launching model rockets with his brothers, I can't help but envy the folks in Mission Control who get to count down and push the metaphorical "Button." This isn't an inner tube and a plastic chute. It's the largest, most powerful transportation vehicle this nation has seen since the Apollo days.

Here's hoping you have a good day, NASA.

TRAVIS K. KIRCHER is a Web Producer for WDRB News, and a member of the National Space Society.

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