NASA has been targeting the first test flight for the Orion space capsule to happen in 2014 since July of 2012. Orion is a multipurpose crew vehicle that is designed to take astronauts to the ISS and possibly beyond. NASA has recently said that the Orion is on target for its inaugural test flight to happen in September of 2014.
The Orion capsule is scheduled to launch using a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. A specific day in September hasn't been announced. The test flight will be unmanned and is called Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1).
During the flight test, Orion will fly to a high altitude and undergo a high-speed plunge back into the Earth's atmosphere to investigate how well the capsules heat shields are able to deal with the extreme heat generated by atmospheric reentry. After plunging back into the Earth's atmosphere, the Orion will land in the Pacific ocean using a parachute to slow its descent.
NASA scientists point out that while Orion looks like the capsules used in the Apollo era to take astronauts to the moon, the capsule shape was chosen because it minimizes risk associated with the heating induced by high-speed reentry. The spacecraft also has a number of high-tech systems including autonomous systems, failure detection systems, and the ability to reroute systems without input from an astronaut.
The test of the Orion capsule heat shields is critical. Scientists say that no spacecraft has reentered the Earth's atmosphere at the speeds Orion will hit since the Apollo era. Orion will enter the Earth atmosphere at a higher speed than the space shuttle when it was in service. Orion will reach speeds of around 20,000 mph during reentry.
SOURCE: NBC News