NASA is abuzz with the first flight of its Orion spacecraft, a vessel the agency hails as a pioneer in taking humans deep into the solar system--and one day to Mars. The Orion launched Dec. 5 for a four-plus hour test flight to stress its heat shield for the extreme temperatures that atmospheric-entry generates. The initial flight was also designed to test the craft's durability to the intense radiation beyond low-earth orbit, the area to which humans have been confined since the Apollo lunar missions.
Despite this first modest step with Orion, NASA has a long history investigating the Red Planet, dating back 50 years to the Mariner 4 mission that gave us our first close photos of Mars. Today, the planet is widely scrutinized, with the United States currently fielding two scientific landers on the surface, the European Space Agency operating the Mars Express mission and India arriving in September 2014 with its Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyaan. Have a look at the craft that have enabled NASA's periodic visits to a rocky planet 34 million miles away. One day, with the numerous lessons learned from Mercury to Orion, humans may actually survey Mars with their own eyes.