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NASA's Orion capsule moved to launch pad

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Nov 13, 2014, 4:16 UTC

Sen—Running a day late to wait out poor weather, NASA's new Orion capsule made an overnight trek to the launch pad where it will be hoisted on top of a Delta 4 Heavy rocket for a test flight next month. 

The 4.5-hour flight, scheduled for Dec. 4, is intended as a test run for Orion's avionics, guidance and control systems, heat shield, parachutes and other equipment needed to one day fly astronauts to and from destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. 

“This initial test flight, which focuses on some of the highest risks to bringing the crew back safely from exploration missions, is really important to us,” said Ellen Ochoa, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston told reporters before Orion's move.

The capsule, built by Lockheed Martin Corp, was transferred from a processing hangar at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and taken 22 miles away to Launch Complex 37 at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It arrived before dawn on Wednesday.

For its debut test flight, Orion will lift off aboard a Delta 4 Heavy booster, built by United Launch Alliance and currently the largest U.S. rocket available.

Future flights of Orion will be aboard NASA's still-under-development Space Launch System rocket, which is expected to have its first flight—with another Orion capsule—toward the end of 2018. 

Orion will fly without crews for both test runs. Its first flight with astronauts aboard is expected in 2021 or 2022. 

NASA is developing the four-person capsule, along with the SLS rocket, to fly crews beyond the International Space Station, which orbits about 260 miles above Earth. Eventually Orion will be part of the transportation system needed to land astronauts on Mars, but before then NASA plans to  send crews to an asteroid that will have been robotically relocated into a high orbit around the moon. 

For its first flight, NASA wants to send Orion on a two-orbit trip around Earth that positions the vehicle as far as about 3,600 miles from the planet. From there, it will blast back into the atmosphere at a speed of about 20,000 mph—close to what spacecraft returning to Earth from the moon will experience. 

Among the key goals of Orion's test flight is to assess how well the capsule's heat shield withstands the 4,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures expected to be generated during re-entry. 

The mission will conclude about 4.5 hours after launch with a parachute splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. The capsule will be refurbished and used again to test an emergency launch abort system.

The flight, called Exploration Flight Test-1, is costing NASA about $375 million, not including the Orion capsule, said program manager Mark Geyer.