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Why's Colorado So Excited About The Orion Launch? Here's A Guide

NASA/Radislav Sinyak
Engineers and technicians at Space Launch Complex 37 move Orion into place in the service structure so the spacecraft can be lifted and joined to the top of the Delta IV Heavy rocket.

On Friday morning, NASA plans to launch the Orion spacecraft. It's seen as a first step in a possible human journey to Mars. 

Coloradans have a reason to be extra-interested in this mission, since local companies played a key role in building the spacecraft. Here's some key facts about the mission and upcoming launch.

Launch time: 5:05 a.m. MDT, Thursday, Dec. 4 Friday, Dec. 5. (NASA aborted its Thursday launch due to weather and a valve problem)

Where to watch: NASA TV will live-broadcast the launch.

Why it's flying: This is a test of the spacecraft a 4.5-hour flight, to see how well it ascends, re-enters, and works in deep space. No humans will be on board.

Key numbers: During the flight, Orion will hit the atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour. It's peak altitude will be 3,609 miles, 15 times higher than the international space station. Its heat shield, designed to bear 5,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures, will be tested with heat up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it returns to earth.

Credit NASA
The Orion flight test pattern.

Why it's unique: This is the first mission since the 1972 Apollo moon-landing  mission to carry a craft built for humans into deep space.

Why it looks like the top of an ice-cream-cone:  As NASA administrator Charles Bolden told NPR, the shape makes it tough enough to survive a rough re-entry:  "I am told by all my aerodynamics friends and my rocket friends that the conical shape is the best shape for us."

Colorado connections:  As The Denver Post reports, many parts of the upcoming launch have a strong Colorado connection. Littleton-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems headed up the missions' contracting. The company built the craft and its heat shield, a key part of the project that is designed to protect humans from radiation, at its campus in Jefferson County. The launcher for the spacecraft was also built by a Colorado company, United Launch Alliance, in Centennial.

Colorado has a strong aerospace presence, something that Governor Hickenlooper trumpeted, along with Orion, in a recent op-ed.

Credit NASA
An artist conception of Orion in space.

Future plans:  NASA is billing this trip as the first step in an eventual human mission to Mars. The agency and others in the space industry see the mission as one way to rekindle America's love affair with space exploration.

What could go wrong:  Every space launch is full of risks, from how the launch rocket works to unforeseen equipment problems. Remember October's unmanned Antares launch that exploded?

Weather could delay the launch; there's a 70 percent chance of acceptable conditions for launch. In the bigger picture, the Orion program's continuity may be in trouble. Congress seems to have mixed feeling about funding the Orion project. A past program with similar goals to Orion, Constellation, was canceled after struggling with cost overruns and delays, $13 billion and five years in, reports the Los Angeles Times.

This post has been updated to reflect a change in launch dates.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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