NASA’s return to manned spaceflight took a couple of major steps forward this week with the completion of the Orion crew capsule and the attachment of it and the previously-completed service module to the adapter that will connect Orion to its rocket. The developments mark the completion of all major components of the spacecraft, which is due to make its first test flight in December.
With the installation of the world's largest heat shield and attachment of its inert service module in June, all that remains for the 5 m (16.5 ft) diameter spacecraft is fueling and attachment of its launch abort system before installation atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket.
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In readiness for this, on Thursday NASA moved the Orion from the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it will be fueled with ammonia and hyper propellants. Once fueling is completed, the launch abort system will be installed.
This unmanned test flight will be NASA’s first chance to observe how well Orion works in space before it's sent on its first mission on the Space Launch System (SLS), which is currently under development by NASA and is scheduled to fly no later than 2018.
The Orion is NASA’s first manned spacecraft project to reach test-flight status since the Space Shuttle first flew in the 1980s. It is designed to carry up to six astronauts on deep space missions to Mars and asteroids, either on its own or using a habitat module for missions longer than 21 days. In December, Exploration Flight Test-1 will send Orion 3,600 mi (5,800 km) into space.
"Nothing about building the first of a brand new space transportation system is easy," says Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager. "But the crew module is undoubtedly the most complex component that will fly in December. The pressure vessel, the heat shield, parachute system, avionics– piecing all of that together into a working spacecraft is an accomplishment. Seeing it fly in three months is going to be amazing."
The time lapse video below shows Orion on the move.