(Sen) - A milestone in the development of NASA's next space vehicle was reached yesterday when the first Orion capsule was delivered to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
While commercial companies continue to work on their own spacecraft for missions to low-Earth orbit, Orion is NASA's own project to fly much further into space.
Its first unmanned test flight, planned for 2014, will travel 15 times further than the International Space Station's orbit, to a distance of 5,800 km (3,600 miles) above the Earth.
But that is just the beginning. With astronauts aboard, future missions will eventually visit a passing asteroid, return humans to the Moon and hopefully later to the planet Mars.
By 2017, NASA's new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) will be ready to put Orion into space as part of this bold vision. Though Orion visibly resembles the historic command modules that carried Apollo astronauts to the Moon, technology has advanced to make them far more capable, sustaining astronauts on long missions and providing an emergency abort capability if a launch goes wrong.
The new spacecraft was salvaged from the Constellation program designed under President George W Bush when he was replaced by President Barack Obama and the NASA road map was redrawn. It was built at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.
NASA's Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said: "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.
"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."
A team of 400 engineers at Kennedy will now fit heat shielding thermal protection systems, avionics and other subsystems to the Orion spacecraft. At the same time, another team is busy modifying and refurbishing facilities at the spaceport including the Vehicle Assembly Building, Launch Control Center, launch pad, mobile launcher and crawler-transporter.