It was an early morning in December when the Orion spacecraft lit up the sky just east of UCF.
A Delta IV heavy rocket propelled the test capsule into space, where it would later return to Earth with a giant splash into the Pacific Ocean.
After the success of the test flight, it was official — the mission to Mars would move full speed ahead.
"NASA's Orion spacecraft is built to take humans farther than they've ever gone before. Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities," NASA's website states. The next test flight is scheduled for 2018.
While space can be a heavy concept for many students and seem very distant from the realities of everyday life, it doesn't take much to spot a NASA contribution. While students bury their heads in smartphones or enjoy the luxury of high-speed Internet, they are actively utilizing innovations that were created or discovered through space research.
But what exactly will a mission to Mars and the Orion spacecraft mean to us down the road?
The Central Florida Future chatted with UCF planetary scientist Philip Metzger, who is part of the Florida Space Institute at UCF and a research collaborator at Kennedy Space Center, as well as Jon Cowart, a project manager at NASA, to narrow down just what this could mean not only for college students in the future, but civilization as a whole.
With that in mind, we came up with five ways the Orion Missions to Mars could change our lives forever:
5. It's now possible to grow up and be an astronaut again
When the Space Shuttle program came to a halt, so did many childhood dreams. No longer was the United States blasting its own citizens into space with our own craft. Instead, we began to rely on other countries, such as Russia, for a lift to the International Space Station — and the number of astronauts making that plunge significantly decreased.
As the Orion program moves forward, so will human space flight. The overall mission is to get humans to Mars for the kind of exploration generations before never even dreamed of, Cowart explained.
Human spaceflight matters, Metzger said, and means more than shooting robots into the interstellar. Not only does it get the public actively involved and excited, it marks a new chapter in human evolution where we will eventually put footprints on another planet.
"With missions to Mars and asteroids and elsewhere we can expect revolutionary advances in our understanding of the solar system, how planets work, where life exists and other important questions," Metzger said. "We will get these answers faster, and the public will be deeply engaged."
Video released by NASA shows what astronauts would see during reentry aboard the spacecrraft.
4. Those STEM degrees will pay off
As the space program grows, so will the need for talented scientists and engineers. And with UCF just miles away from the heart of NASA's headquarters, opportunities will likely blossom.
"Thus, an implicit benefit of Orion is that it gets students engaged in STEM activities — science, technology, engineering and math — which have become central to the development of our civilization," Metzger said.
3. It could solve environmental problems here on Earth
One of the biggest implications of Mars and interplanetary research is that we here on Earth may be able to find solutions to some of our biggest environmental issues outside our own atmosphere, Metzger explained.
"We have reached the point in civilization where we can start relying on materials and energy in space to run the machinery of civilization and thus take the strain off of the Earth," he said.
Metzger suggests we can instill a food chain in space to process raw materials where life cannot exist, something he calls a robotic food chain or "robotosphere." The food chain could be created using asteroids, lunar soil and Martian resources, he said, thus allowing humans to produce goods and services.
"It can have a billion times that ability to produce goods and services compared to Earth's food chain and human industry because there are literally a billion times or more the resources, including energy, metals, water, etc." Metzger said. "We will have the ability to take dirty industry off the Earth, stop mining sensitive areas, stop stripping rain forests, beam down clean energy from space 24/7, use the abundant clean energy to mine our landfills and put them back into pristine states, and clean up the atmosphere."
A ULA Delta IV heavy rocket lifted NASA's Orion capsule into orbit for it's first test flight. Video by Craig Baiiey. Posted Dec. 5, 2014.
2. Gain new products and innovations we could never dream of otherwise
While many fail to recognize the contributions of the Apollo moon missions, Cowart said that we are still reaping the benefits of its many discoveries to this day, and the innovations that stem from the Orion program will likely be the same.
"One cannot imagine the discoveries, which will result from the fundamental scientific research that is to be done in the pursuit of going to another planet," Cowart said. "… There are technologies in development right now and then ones we can't even imagine, which will make our world so fundamentally different 100 years from now that you would scarcely be able to recognize it if you got to see it."
1. A new place to live
Perhaps one of the most bold and mind-boggling changes that could come from the Orion Mars program is that it opens the door to human civilization living on another planet, Metzger said.
"Right now we are a one-planet species. Our next step is to become a two-planet species by learning how to live on Mars," he said.
Exploration on Mars is imperative to this effort, and could eventually lead to colonies that thrive in a world other than our own. While there is much work to do before this ever becomes even a remote reality, it could happen, he said, and is well on its way.
Not to mention, humans living on Mars could make for some drastic improvements to everyday life, he said. This includes "creating more diversity, beauty and adventure in the human experience; taking the next step into our solar system and galaxy; creating a market for the new space economy," Metzger said.
And the most exciting part yet? Seeing a human step foot on Mars is a notion once made for science fiction novels, but will likely be a reality many students see in their lifetimes.
Jessica J. Saggio is the Managing Editor at the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaJSaggio or email her at JessicaS@KnightNewspapers.com.