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nasa test brings irish dad's mars dream that bit closer

AN Irish dad bidding to go to Mars has revealed his excitement at seeing NASA 's Orion spacecraft blast off yesterday.

IT engineer Steve Menaa is still in the running to board Mars One's first one-way flight to the planet in 2023.

And the dad-of-one (inset) told how watching NASA's new spacecraft lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on its first test flight has only made him more determined to leave his life on Earth behind.

"It makes it all the more real," says Steve (45), who's among just 663 finalists worldwide. "I didn't get to watch it live, because I was working, but it's very exciting."

Space hopeful Steve beat off stiff competition from more than 200,000 people to make it to final stages of the space race.

Dutch entrepreneur Bas Landsorp revealed plans for a $6bn mission to Mars - which will be filmed for a reality TV show - back in 2012. And while NASA aims to send humans to Mars by 2033, he claims it's possible to have a colony of up to 20 people living on the planet by then.

If successful, he'll wave goodbye to his 15 year-old son Axel to join the Dutch company's televised attempt at colonising Mars.

"If I'm chosen, the saddest part will be leaving my son Axel behind on Earth," says Steve. "But he's very proud of me for getting this far. Already he's been telling all his classmates that his dad could be going to Mars!"

NASA's new Orion spacecraft hit its intended high point of 3,600 miles above Earth, the farthest a spacecraft built for humans has travelled in four decades. It successfully returned to Earth just a few hours later

The capsule reached peak altitude of 3,604 miles (5,800 kilometres) three hours after yesterday morning's lift-off from Cape Canaveral on an unmanned test flight. It's the farthest a spacecraft designed for humans has flown since Apollo 17 - NASA's final moon shot - flew 42 years ago.

NASA needed to send Orion that high in order to set the capsule up for a 20,000-mph (32,200-kph), 4,000-degree entry over the Pacific. Engineers want to see how the heat shield holds up before putting humans on board.

Mission controllers said Orion reached its peak altitude of 3,604 statute miles above the Earth at 3.11pm Irish time.

At that point, it was further from the Earth than any space vehicle had been since the Apollo 17 mission 42 years ago.

The spacecraft's trajectory took it through the Van Allen radiation belts, bands of fast-moving energetic particles trapped by the Earth's magnetic field.

One purpose of the mission was to see how well Orion was able to withstand the radiation. The craft's protected electrical systems are designed to cope with levels that would disable common devices such as mobile phones.