The Orion space capsule is meant for deep space travel and taking astronauts to Mars and beyond, according to Space.com, part of a retooling of the space agency as it sets its sights on exploring and traveling to distant parts of the Milky Way.
Shifting gears, NASA will no longer focus on projects such as the International Space Station or travel to low-Earth orbit, reports Space.com. Instead, projects such as the Orion space capsule will be the future of NASA alongside scientific research. The Orion project was initially unveiled earlier this year in July.
Orion has its origins in NASA's Constellation program, which was canceled by President Barack Obama in 2011. The current Orion design is called the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.
NASA has hired Lockheed Martin as the primary contractor for the project. According to Doug Cooke, associate administrator for NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, NASA has already spent $5 billion on the Orion space capsule.
NASA announced on Tuesday the Orion project was on track for an unmanned test launch in September 2014. Mark Geyer, Orion program manager, speaking to Space.com, said "I think having a test flight in '14 is huge — people can see it right there, it's a really important goal."
The September 2014 launch will be called Exploration Flight Test 1 and will test half of Orion's systems that NASA will ultimately use in the final Orion space capsule, including the heat shield, the computer system and the general structure of the capsule. NASA hopes that the space capsule will be safer during landing as well as re-entry into Earth than earlier spaceships. .
The Orion space capsule will be part of the Space Launch System. The first combined test flight, Exploration Mission 1, is scheduled for 2017.