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Orion space capsule: NASA gets ready for 2014 test launch

NASA has unveied the brand new Orion space capsule, which is expected to have its first test launch in spring 2014.

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The Orion spacecraft will then turn around and come home, re-entering the atmosphere at a blazing speed of more than 20,000 mph (32,000 kph) in an attempt to prove that its heat shield is capable of protecting the capsule — and its future crews — after missions to an asteroid, the moon, and ultimately Mars.

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"We are going to get about 84 percent of a lunar entry velocity, which is really going to stress the heat shield, which is exactly what we're trying to do," said Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion program manager.

The EFT-1 mission will end with the Orion splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of the United States.

Before all of that can occur however, the bare pressure vehicle now at Kennedy Space Center needs to be outfitted for flight. [Wanted: Rocket Adapter for Orion Spaceship (Video)]

Building the future

By the fall of 2013, Lockheed Martin, NASA's lead contractor for Orion, plans to have the 16-foot wide (5-meter) capsule completed and looking more like a typical spacecraft. Its metal panels will be covered by an advanced version of the thermal protection tiles used on the space shuttle, and the capsule's belly will be covered with a modern variant of the ablative heat shield used on NASA's Apollo spacecraft.

"There are people ready with drill bits, and tubes, and pipes to start assembly of this vehicle as soon as we're out of here and out of their way," said John Karas, Lockheed Martin's vice president for human space flight.

The Orion will also be equipped with avionics systems and other instrumentation to fly and record the data from the flight test.

What the EFT-1 capsule will not have is the digital glass cockpit, crew seats, life support systems (including a planned toilet), or the solar panel wings that future, manned Orion capsules will require. These systems will be included on later test vehicles set to launch on NASA's next heavy-lift booster, a giant rocket called the Space Launch System.

The Space Launch System, which was authorized by Congress last year and is under development now, is being designed to support both crew and cargo launches to destinations beyond low Earth orbit. NASA is targeting its first unmanned Space Launch System flight for 2017, with the first manned Orion flight to follow four years later.

Robert Z. Pearlman is the editor of collectSPACE.com, the leading online space history publication and a SPACE.com partner. You can follow @robertpearlman on Twitter or on Facebook. Follow SPACE.com on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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