The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) unveiled its Orion space capsule at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday.
The new spacecraft is designed to fly astronauts to asteroids, the moon and eventually to Mars. Though designed to carry a crew of four, Orion will make its first two flights unmanned in 2014 and 2017. The 2014 launch is intended to test Orion’s heat shield, parachutes and other systems.
It is expected to reach about 3,450 miles (5,552 km) above Earth – more than 10 times beyond where the International Space Station flies – then slam back into the planet’s atmosphere with 84 percent of the force that a spaceship returning from the moon would have.
The second test flight in 2017 using NASA’s planned heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, is intended to put an unmanned Orion capsule around the moon. The third test flight, targeted for 2021, is expected to include astronauts.
By 2025, NASA intends to send astronauts to explore a near-Earth asteroid and then head on to Mars in the 2030s.
The Obama administration’s budget request for the deep-space Orion capsule and NASA’s heavy-lift, shuttle-derived rocket is $2.3 billion for the year beginning October 1. It also requested $830 million for the Commercial Crew program.
Legislators are leaning toward increasing the amount spent on the government program and shaving about $300 million off NASA’s investment in commercial spaceships.