NASA won't fly manned tests of its next spacecraft, the Orion MPCV, until at least 2021, according to top administrators at the agency.
The agency has been developing Orion and the Space Launch System heavy-lift launch vehicle, the rocket that will power the spacecraft, since last year. Orion is expected to be the vehicle that is eventually part of a manned mission to Mars.
"SLS and Orion are fundamental building blocks … for long-term human exploration of our solar system, particularly the goal of human landing on Mars," Daniel Dumbacher, an administrator in NASA's Exploration Systems Development branch, told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.
Orion's first manned mission will likely be to a nearby asteroid or into lunar orbit before a manned Mars mission.
"We know the ultimate destination is Mars," he said. "The intermediate destinations haven't been determined yet."
NASA is planning an uncrewed launch of Orion, which is designed to hold four astronauts, and the SLS in 2017. Orion will fly aboard an existing Delta-IV rocket in 2014 on a mission that will take it further than low-earth orbit.
Dumbacher said that the remaining hurdles with Orion and SLS are "not primarily technical," and that the agency should be able to develop the vehicles if budget funding remains level.
"The challenges are in maintaining program stability," he said.
California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher expressed concerns that if NASA's budget for Orion and SLS is cut, the government could be wasting a lot of money—as it has with several other space projects in the past.
"We've been through a number of these vehicles in the past where we have budget problems on this end, cancel the project, and we end up losing billions of dollars," he said.
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com
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