NASA Preps Orion Spacecraft For Deep Space Test Flight

NASA's Orion shuttle, designed to one day carry astronauts to Mars, rolled out of its hangar at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday in preparation for its first deep space test flight.

The roll-out marks the end of the Orion capsule's assembly process. In December, Orion will be launched to a distance of 3,600 miles from Earth, 14 times further away than the International Space Station, The Daily Mail reports. The unmanned flight will set out from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket.

Part of NASA's follow-up to the space shuttle program, the spacecraft will allow astronauts to travel farther than the ISS and eventually to Mars. Orion's first manned test is currently scheduled for 2021. During future missions, Orion will accommodate a crew of four.

After it is launched on December 4th, Orion will orbit Earth twice before striking the atmosphere at a speed of 20,000 mph. NASA scientists intend to prove that the spacecraft's heat shield is capable of protecting astronauts returning from potential missions to the Moon or Mars. Orion's heat shield will reach 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit during reentry.

Development of the Orion capsule began over a decade ago as part of NASA's now-defunct Constellation moon program, Reuters reports. The capsule is built by Lockheed Martin, and NASA has already invested $9 billion bringing it to fruition.

Currently, the space agency contracts with Russia to put space station crew members into orbit aboard Soyuz capsules. As The Inquisitr has previously noted, a heated competition exists among three private sector companies to establish a U.S. based commercial space taxi. Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, is in competition with Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp to develop viable space launch technology.

In June, a test version of Orion was dropped from 35,000 feet above the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. Launched from a C-17 aircraft, NASA engineers allowed Orion to freefall for 10 seconds before deploying its parachutes in order to test the system.

When NASA launches Orion in December, it will travel further from Earth than any habitable spacecraft has ventured in over 40 years.

[Image via CTV News]