On Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, America took its first step toward a manned mission to Mars -- and we didn't need a Russian rocket to do it.
After a Thursday plagued by flight delays that ultimately scrubbed a first attempt at launch, NASA launched the EFT-1 mission into space at 7:05 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Combined efforts by the United Launch Alliance sent a Lockheed Martin ( LMT 2.33% ) -built Orion spacecraft into space atop a Boeing ( BA 3.53% ) -built Delta IV Heavy rocket.
Powered by three of GenCorp's ( AJRD 1.27% ) liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engines in the form of "Common Booster Cores," or CBC, EFT-1 blasted into orbit 260 miles above the Earth, accelerated into a second orbit reaching 3,600 miles -- then spun on a dime and plunged into the Pacific in a picture-perfect splashdown. Along the way, Orion notched successful separations of boosters from the rocket's first stage, second stage from first stage, and capsule from second stage -- and just for kicks, showed that all 11 parachutes designed to slow its descent to Earth functioned flawlessly.
Orion also put its new Lockheed Martin-built heat shield through a real trial by fire. In the experimental, unmanned flight's coup de grace, NASA proved that the two-inch-thick shield was up to the task of protecting the capsule on a 20,000 mile-an-hour trip through the atmosphere, at temperatures reaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit and stresses twice those ordinarily faced by astronauts on reentry.
As one NASA spokesman put it, this was "the most perfect flight you could ever imagine."
So much for understatement.
Understatement be darned -- we're going on a mission to Mars!
Yes, it certainly does look that way. Friday's test flight was the first step in a NASA plan to eventually send manned spaceships to the Red Planet sometime after 2030. But while Friday was certainly a fine day for Americans, and for the American space program ... what does all of this mean to investors?
In a nutshell, it means nothing but good things for investors in space-tech leaders Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and GenCorp, all of whose systems functioned brilliantly. In an era of constrained budgets, any significant setback to Friday's test could have pressured NASA to cut its losses, and threatened to call off the proposed mission to Mars -- estimated to cost anywhere from $30 billion to in excess of $100 billion over a term of years.
Instead, the successful first test of Orion furthers a multi-year and multi-billion-dollar march to Mars -- with potential missions to Earth's Moon, to various near-Earth asteroids, and to Martian moons Phobos and Deimos along the way. It means billions of dollars' worth of development contracts to build the new Space Launch System, to prepare Orion to carry human astronauts, and to develop other necessary hardware, all remain online.
And inspired by Boeing's and Lockheed's (and GenCorp's) success, it could mean we'll see a surge in investment in cutting edge space tech by smaller firms. Rival space start-up SpaceX might even feel compelled to hasten its IPO, to attract more dollars to compete with a finally triumphant United Launch Alliance.
Whatever else it means, though, NASA's successful test flight of Orion Friday means above all else: America is on a mission -- to Mars.