NASA's deep-space craft readying for launch
The Space Shuttle program retired in 2011, leaving American astronauts to hitchhike into orbit. But NASA's successor is almost ready to make an entrance.Orion, the agency's newest manned spaceship, is being prepared for its first mission in December. In future missions, it will go into deep space; to Mars and beyond, farther than humans have ever gone before.
Orion comes loaded with superlatives. It boasts the largest heat shield ever built and a computer 400 times faster than the ones on the space shuttles. It will be launched into space on the most powerful rocket NASA has ever made. No astronauts will be aboard the December flight, which will test the spacecraft's systems for future manned missions.
Final work on the spacecraft is under way at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Orion came one step closer to completion this month with the stacking of the crew module atop the service module. "Now that we're getting so close to launch, the spacecraft completion work is visible every day," Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer said in a statement. When complete, the Orion capsule will resemble a fencing foil, with a tall spire shooting up from a rounded base. At the top will sit a launch abort system, with downward-facing thrusters that would save the crew from a jarring crash in the event of a rocket malfunction.
The bottom portion, the service module, will perform various functions such as in-space propulsion and cargo storage. Nestled between the two will be the crew module, capable of supporting human life from launch until recovery. Attached to the service module will be a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. For the first time since the space shuttle's debut launch in 1981, the crew compartment will ride on the tip of the rocket rather than hanging onto its side, evoking the configuration of the famous Apollo or Gemini missions.