The Orion capsule that will make the first flight test into space was celebrated Monday morning as the cornerstone of a new era of exploration for America's space program.
The spacecraft's aluminum-alloy crew pressure module arrived at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Friday, June 29, where it will be built up into a fully functioning spacecraft ahead of a test flight slated for 2014.
"This starts a new, exciting chapter in this nation's great space exploration story," said Lori Garver, NASA deputy administrator. "Today we are lifting our spirits to new heights."
Orion will be the most advanced spacecraft ever designed. It will provide emergency abort capability, sustain astronauts during space travel and provide safe re-entry from deep space.
The 2014 uncrewed flight, called Exploration Flight Test-1 or EFT-1, will be loaded with a wide variety of instruments to evaluate how the spacecraft behaves during launch, in space and the through the searing heat of reentry.
Later Orion spacecraft will take astronauts on missions to destinations far beyond Earth, such as to an asteroid and Mars.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to Mars," proclaimed U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who joined Garver and other officials to welcome the Orion spacecraft. "We know the Orion capsule is a critical part of the system that's going to take us there."
Designed with astronauts in mind, Orion will take crews beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since 1972, when Apollo 17 completed the last moon landing. The Space Launch System, or SLS -- a gigantic rocket akin to the Saturn V that launched the Apollo spacecraft -- is being developed to launch future Orion missions to deep space. The first launch of the SLS, with Orion atop, is scheduled for 2017.
Astronaut Rex Walheim, who flew on the final space shuttle mission and has had a leading role in the development of Orion, said the capsule can be the principal spacecraft for 30 years of human exploration of the solar system.
"It's the first in a line of vehicles that can take us where we've never gone before," Walheim said. "It'll be a building block approach, we'll have to have a lander and a habitation module, but we can get there."
Although the design is reminiscent of the landmark Apollo capsule that took men to the moon, the interior of the spacecraft if significantly more advanced. Its guidance, navigation and life support equipment have seen significant improvements in size and capabilities.
"The systems on this spacecraft, it's bigger than Apollo and it has to stay in space longer than Apollo, so it has to be better than Apollo," said Bob Cabana, director of Kennedy and a former shuttle commander.
For now, the focus for NASA and Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft's builder, is on preparing this capsule for space in 2014. During the EFT-1 mission, a Delta IV-Heavy rocket from United Launch Alliance will lift the spacecraft into orbit. Its second stage will remain attached to the capsule and will be fired to raise the Orion's orbit to 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station. The mission will last only a few hours, long enough to make two orbits before being sent plunging back into the atmosphere to test it at deep-space reentry speeds.