NASA is one step closer to launching its newest spacecraft designed for humans.

NASA's Orion spacecraft, preparing for it's first flight, departs the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building on its way to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Orion is scheduled for a test flight in early December. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Workers at Kennedy Space Center gathered to watch as the Orion capsule emerged from its assembly hangar months from its first test flight. The capsule slowly made its way to its fueling depot atop a 36-wheel platform. The capsule and its attached service module and adapter ring stretched 40 feet high. Space center employees lined up along the rope barricade to snap pictures of Orion, NASA’s lofty follow-on to the now-retired space shuttle program.

During its test flight, the unmanned capsule will shoot more than 3,600 miles into space and take two big laps around Earth before re-entering the atmosphere at 20,000 mph and parachuting into the Pacific off the San Diego coast.

NASA's Orion spacecraft, preparing for it's …

The second Orion flight won’t occur until around 2018 when another unmanned capsule soars atop NASA’s new mega-rocket, still under development, called SLS for Space Launch System. NASA intends to put astronauts aboard Orion in 2021 for deep space exploration; each capsule can accommodate up to four astronauts. The plan is to use Orion for getting humans to asteroids and Mars .There will be no space station ferry trips for Orion.

While Orion may resemble an oversize Apollo capsule on the outside, everything inside and out is modern and top-of-the-line. For Orion’s dry run, the  capsule will have hunks of aluminum in place of seats for ballast, and simulators instead of actual cockpit displays. A Delta IV rocket will do the heavy lifting.

NASA's Orion spacecraft, preparing for it's …

Orion has its roots in the post-Columbia shuttle era; it originated a decade ago as a crew exploration vehicle to get astronauts beyond low Earth orbit and managed to survive the cancellation of the Constellation moon project. The Constellation project was the completion of the International Space Station and a return to the moon no later than 2020 with the planet  Mars as the ultimate goal.

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