NASA retired its ride to space, the space shuttle, in 2011, but its next spaceship was in the works well before then. Conceived in 2005, the Orion capsule is now set to make its first test flight, which is scheduled for December.
The cone-shaped vehicle, designed to carry humans farther into space than ever before, is reminiscent of the Apollo capsules that flew astronauts to the moon, but it is a third larger. These roomier dimensions can house between two and six crew members for missions of 21 days—longer than any previous vehicle except space stations.
The upcoming four-hour flight, when the capsule will launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and enter low-Earth orbit, will carry no human cargo. Rather the trial run will ensure that the spacecraft's rocket encasings safely jettison when they are supposed to, that its parachutes deploy correctly and that its heat shield can withstand the 4,000 degree Fahrenheit flames of reentry. The test should pave the way for a crewed flight in 2021 to visit a nearby asteroid. The ultimate goal is a journey to Mars, when Orion would dock with another traveling habitat for extra living space.
Eventually Orion will fly atop nasa's Space Launch System (SLS), a rocket still in development that will be the most powerful ever built. For Orion's test this month, the United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy rocket will stand in. The Delta IV produces nearly two million pounds of thrust, much less than the 8.4 million pounds of thrust the SLS should generate (which is 10 percent more than the Saturn V rocket that launched astronauts to the moon). nasa estimates it will cost up to $22 billion to develop the first versions of Orion and the SLS.
A lot is riding on this maiden voyage besides money. Ever since the space shuttle was mothballed, the future of American spaceflight has been murky. This could be the energizer NASA has been hoping for.