NASA and Lockheed Martin have announced the completion of the final assembly and testing of the Orion spacecraft, which is designed to carry NASA astronauts on deep space missions. This clears the way for the first test flight in December as NASA prepares to re-enter the manned spaceflight business.

Lockheed, the prime contractor for Orion, says that the spacecraft’s components have all been assembled, including the launch abort escape tower and the curved Ogive panels that make up the fairing designed to protect the Orion capsule from vibrations and noise during lift off. Once assembly was completed, the spacecraft was lifted by crane and rotated into an upright position before being placed on a transport pallet.

The 72-ft (22-m) tall Orion spacecraft is now waiting inside the Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, until the Delta IV Heavy booster is ready to receive it. Orion will then rollout to launch pad 37 before being lifted atop the rocket in November. In the meantime, the preflight crew will continue to carry out tests. After the rocket and spacecraft have been mated the systems will be powered up and given a final going over.

All of this is in preparation for the EFT-1 mission, which launches on December 4 and will be Orion’s first flight into space. During this brief excursion, the capsule will be unmanned as it travels in an orbit that will take it 3,600 mi (5,800 km) from Earth before returning for reentry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean that same day. The reason for this particular trajectory is to ensure that the spacecraft will hit the atmosphere at 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h), which is the speed of a returning deep space mission and the fastest reentry by a man-rated spacecraft since the Apollo era over forty years ago.

Lockheed says that if Orion returns safely, it will provide critical information on the performance of the largest heat shield ever built, the avionics and software, and parachutes, as well as fairing and launch abort system separations.

"An empty shell of a spacecraft arrived to Kennedy Space Center two years ago, and now we have a fully assembled Orion standing 72 feet tall," says Michael Hawes Lockheed Martin Orion program manager. "We’re ready to launch it into space and test every inch."

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