NASA's first of a new generation of manned deep space exploration craft has begun to take shape at the space agency's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans. This week, Lockheed Martin technicians and engineers welded together the first two components of the Orion crew capsule for Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), which will carry astronauts beyond low Earth orbit for the first time in almost 50 years.

So far, only one operational Orion capsule reached space when the unmanned Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) lifted off atop a Delta IV Heavy booster on December 5, 2014. A second, more advanced Orion is currently being prepared for Exploration Mission-1. It's scheduled to fly in 2019 using the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, but again, without a crew.

Though the EM-2 Orion will be a major step in the American program to establish a Deep Space Gateway station, return to the Moon, and eventually make a manned landing on Mars, it isn't much to look at at the moment. The first construction step involved welding the command capsule's forward bulkhead to the tunnel section, to form the top of the spacecraft. In all, seven large machined aluminum alloy pieces will form the pressure vessel, which is the main hull of the craft.

"Orion has tremendous momentum. We're finishing assembly of the EM-1 Orion spacecraft in Florida, and simultaneously starting production on the first one that will carry crew," says Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin vice president and program manager for Orion. "This is not only the most advanced spacecraft ever built, its production will be more efficient than any previous capsule. For example, look at the progress we've made on the EM-2 pressure vessel compared to the first one we built. The latest version is 30 percent lighter and has 80 percent fewer parts. That equates to a substantially more cost-effective and capable spacecraft."

Early  artist's rendering of the Orion crew capsule in lunar orbit. Work is now underway on the real thing.(Credit: Lockheed Martin Corp. )

Lockheed says that construction will continue through September as the three cone panels, large barrel, and aft bulkhead are added on. It will then be shipped to the Kennedy Space Center for final assembly and testing.

"The EM-1 and EM-2 crew modules are very similar in design, but we've made a lot of improvements since we built EM-1, including processes, scheduling, and supply chain, all contributing to a lower cost and faster manufacturing," says Paul Anderson, director of Orion EM-2 production at Lockheed Martin. "Each of these spacecraft are important, but we realize that the EM-2 capsule is special as it's the first one to carry astronauts back out to the Moon, something we haven't done in a long time. It's something we think about every day."

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