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NASA Completes 1st Orion Space Capsule for December Test Flight

NASA's first Orion space capsule, designed to carry astronauts to deep-space destinations, is ready for fueling ahead of its debut unmanned test flight in December.

On Thursday (Sept. 11), the space agency's Orion space capsule was transported from an operations and checkout building at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida to a nearby building, where it will be fueled before launching into space in December.

For its December test flight, Orion is supposed to fly an unmanned test about 3,600 miles (5,740 kilometers) into space before returning for a high-speed entry similar to what astronauts faced during the Apollo missions.

NASA's first Orion spacecraft and service module stack made a 20 minute trip from the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 11, 2014, to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility. The spacecraft will launch on its first test flight in December 2014. (Image credit: NASA/Dan Casper)

The Orion crew module, on top of a service module, is moved from an operations and checkout building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 11 to a nearby payload hazardous servicing facility. The spacecraft is being readied for a December test flight. (Image credit: NASA/Dan Casper)

"Nothing about building the first of a brand-new space transportation system is easy," Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager said in a statement. "But the crew module is undoubtedly the most complex component that will fly in December. The pressure vessel, the heat shield, parachute system, avionics – piecing all of that together into a working spacecraft is an accomplishment. Seeing it fly in three months is going to be amazing."

The just-completed crew module is the last major piece of the Orion spacecraft system, with the launch abort system finished in December and the service module completed in January. The crew module and service module were joined together in June for testing.

NASA plans to use Orion to send humans out into the solar system, perhaps to an asteroid or Mars. It is distinct from the commercial crew program that is expected to see private space taxis ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station starting around 2017, should the current timeline hold.

To get into deep space, Orion will use the Space Launch System (SLS), a massive rocket that can kick astronauts out of Earth orbit. The SLS will not be ready for the test flight, however, so NASA will instead send Orion into space on a Delta 4 Heavy rocket.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.