Lockheed Martin has been hard at work on the Orion spacecraft for a long while. The Orion spacecraft is more like the capsules used in the Apollo era than the space shuttle that has been retired from service. The first big milestone for the Orion project is coming in 2014 when NASA hopes to be able test spacecraft during orbits of the earth.
The specific date in 2014 has not been confirmed, but we do know a few tidbits about the maiden flight of the Orion capsule. The maiden flight will be an unmanned mission with the rocket carrying the Orion taking off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Orion will make two orbits of the Earth on its first flight. After those two orbits, the Orion capsule will reenter the atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean where it will be retrieved.
The other tidbit we do know about the mission as of now, is that the Orion will orbit at a distance much higher than the orbit of the ISS. At its zenith, the Orion capsule will be nearly 3700 miles from the Earth’s surface, which is the farthest from Earth that a NASA spacecraft has gone since the early 1970s. Presumably, that high orbit is to keep the Orion capsule out of the way any space debris or important satellites. The test will be conducted to see how heat shields on the spacecraft perform, and whether the craft can survive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere ahead of any manned missions. NASA is still aiming at 2021 for the first human flight aboard the Orion capsule.
“The beauty about flying in 2014 is that we can learn early if there are problems, so if we find something we really got to fix, we’ve got time before we fly people,” said Mark Geyer, head of the Orion program at NASA.