NASA's plan for the immediate future is quite simple. Go to the Moon, go to an asteroid, go to Mars. Not in that specific order but that it what we are looking at as the essential missions in the next 30 years for the space agency. Since the retirement of the shuttle the question has continually been, how? Well that question was answered on the 28th when the Orion space capsule was delivered to NASA's Kennedy Space Center by Lockheed Martin.
"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."
The first flight of the spacecraft will take place in 2014 and will be uncrewed. Called Exploration Flight Test-1 or EFT-1, it 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. This spacecraft will also be the most advanced space craft ever designed with features that include emergency abort capability, sustain astronauts during space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space.
"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."
The capsule will be launched into orbit by the Space Launch System (SLS) and the launch is scheduled to take place in 2017. The SLS is not without controversy though. This is a rocket system that was neither asked for or wanted by NASA but was forced upon them by congress. The huge rocket is capable of lifting up to 130 metric tons to orbit. The current rocket, and the one that will be used for the test flight, the Delta IV-Heavy, is more than powerful enough to get the job done.
"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 is 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, which is long enough to make two orbits before being sent back into the atmosphere to test it at deep-space reentry speeds.