NASA announces new Orion spacecraft could carry humans to Mars, asteroids

NASA announces new Orion spacecraft could carry humans to Mars, asteroids

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NASA officials welcomed the space program’s newest manned spacecraft to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Monday, as the first Orion capsule arrived in Florida to finish preparations for a test flight in 2014. The Orion spacecraft was welcomed in a ceremony honoring the arrival of the capsule, which the NASA report calls a “major milestone in the construction of the vehicle.”

Orion is NASA’s manned follow-up to the space shuttle, and returns to the classical capsule-based plan for manned spaceflight. Directors hope that the Orion program will lead the way to a return, for the first time since the last moon mission in 1972, to manned flight beyond low-Earth orbit, including destinations such nearby asteroids and the planet Mars.

Speaking at the arrival ceremony on Monday, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said, “Now it is our time to put KSC’s knowledge, skills, and experience to work on Orion, the spacecraft that will carry us farther than we have ever been before.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to Mars,” the Florida Democrat added. “We know the Orion capsule is a critical part of the system that’s going to take us there.”

Speaking during the ceremony, NASA officials said that the upcoming launch of Orion would represent a new era of spaceflight at the U.S. space agency. The spacecraft is scheduled to deliver probes and astronauts possibly to Mars and nearby asteroids, say scientists.

“Orion’s arrival at Kennedy is an important step in meeting the president’s goal to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said. “As NASA acquires services for delivery of cargo and crew to the International Space Station and other low-Earth destinations from private companies, NASA can concentrate its efforts on building America’s next generation space exploration system to reach destinations for discovery in deep space. Delivery of the first space-bound Orion, coupled with recent successes in commercial spaceflight, is proof this national strategy is working.”

The Orion capsule will feature the latest in spaceflight technology, learned from the thirty-plus years of the space shuttle and International Space Station programs, and incorporate it into a capsule that resembles, at first glance, the Apollo spacecraft that took man to the Moon. The Orion capsule is larger than Apollo, however, and will be able to function in a wider variety of roles. It will also bear much more advanced equipment.

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.

NASA officials say the spacecraft will launch the U.S. into a new era of spaceflight once thought impossible.

“Work is under way on America’s next great spacecraft that will surpass the boundaries within which humanity has been held,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The Orion capsule was constructed at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, and currently consists of an empty aluminum shell. Crews at the Kennedy Space Center will now begin to outfit the shell with all of the finishing touches, including electronics and instruments and a heat shield, turning it into a spaceworthy craft.

The capsule arriving at the Kennedy Space Center on Monday is scheduled to be the first Orion to actually reach space, aboard an unmanned test flight, called Exploration Flight Test-1, scheduled for 2014. That flight is currently planned to take the Orion nearly 15 times higher in orbit than the International Space Station (3,600 miles above the Earth’s surface), and to test the capsule’s ability to withstand high-velocity reentry, as will occur when returning from deep space.

The spacecraft will be carrying instruments to measure the response of the capsule to the rigors of its first simulated deep-space flight. The test flight will launch aboard a Delta IV-Heavy rocket, while later missions to deep space targets will launch aboard NASA’s massive new Space Launch System rocket, currently under development. According to NASA, the first Orion-SLS launch is expected in 2017.

The demonstration was part of a ceremony to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Space Center. The space center opened July 1, 1962, as NASA’s Launch Operations Center during the Space Race with the Soviet Union. The Merritt Island complex was renamed Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 29, 1963, one week after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, said Stephen Smith, KSC Visitor Complex spokesman.

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