In the future American astronauts may make their way into deep space or to the international space station using NASA's Orion capsule and Orion's Space Launch System. The first flight for Orion is expected to occur in 2014. That flight will be unmanned and aimed at launching the spacecraft 3600 miles above the surface of the Earth.
If that launch is successful, it would mark the farthest mission from Earth since Apollo 17 returned from the moon in 1972. NASA's goal with Orion is to put Americans back on the moon by 2021. This week NASA has been testing parachutes and rocket engines for the Orion spacecraft and its launch system. During parachute tests, NASA engineers intentionally kept one of the three parachutes from opening with a test capsule attached underneath.
Rather than being an actual Orion capsule or a mockup, Wired reports that the "test capsule" was a rocket-shaped object of the same mass as the Orion capsule. For the test, the faux capsule was dropped from 25,000 feet above the ground out in Arizona desert. NASA says that even with only two of the parachutes fully functional and the third flapping in the wind, the capsule descendent at a rate that would have allowed astronauts inside to survive.
The test marks the eighth parachute test for the Orion program. Later in 2013 NASA will begin testing the recovery process used to retrieve the Orion capsule and the astronauts inside after they splashed down in the ocean. Rather than using a helicopter to fly the capsule back to a ship as happened in the Apollo era, a recovery ship will be used to fetch the Orion capsule from the water. NASA also plans to continue testing the J-2X engine's at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. There will be a hot fire test conducted this month to establish performance parameters for the engine and various liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen inlet pressures will be explored.