NASA may be done building space shuttles, but with its recently unveiled Orion space capsule, the agency hopes to send humans farther than ever before: to Mars, asteroids, and beyond.
After years of work, the capsule was unveiled over the summer, and the program's managers have scheduled the spacecraft's first test flight for September 2014. That flight will be unmanned, but eventually the hope is that Orion will hitch a ride on longer-distance rockets and take four astronauts into the solar system. It will be the first new spaceship built by NASA since the space shuttle program in the early 1970s, and could propel the deepest manned flights into space since the shuttle era, according to Space.com.
In its 2014 flight, the capsule will be mounted onto a Delta IV heavy rocket and sent into about 3,600 miles into Earth's orbit, or 15 times higher than the International Space Station. After taking three trips around the globe Orion will re-enter the atmosphere to test the heat shield, an essential component of any space vehicle returning astronauts from space. The capsule will re-enter at about 84 percent the speed of something that's returning from the moon, Mark Geyer, Orion's program manager, told Space.com. If the heat shield works as planned, Orion will splash down in the Pacific Ocean and assure NASA scientists that the new technology in the shield works.
The capsule looks similar to the Apollo capsule that first took astronauts to the moon. Both are cone-shaped pods mounted atop rockets launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. But Orion is bigger and more high tech.
The Orion capsule won't embark on a manned mission until NASA fully develops its Space Launch System, a rocket designed to support launches beyond low Earth orbit. The first test for SLS is scheduled for 2017, and the first manned flight with Orion aboard is set for 2021. Orion's 2014 space flight, even if just a test, is still an important first step in that process, Geyer says.
"I think we have a great design and we have a great plan to fly it," Geyer told Space.com. "It's time to do it, to actually put it to use and put it in the missions that are going to let us discover new things."
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Seth Cline is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.