CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - An Orion space capsule being developed to fly astronauts to asteroids, the moon and eventually to Mars arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a 2014 test flight, NASA said on Monday.
The spacecraft, built by Lockheed-Martin is targeted for launch aboard an unmanned Delta 4 Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, adjacent to the NASA spaceport.
Though designed to carry a crew of four, Orion will make its first two flights unmanned.
“It’s not a PowerPoint chart. It’s a real spacecraft,” Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana said during a ceremony Monday marking the capsule’s arrival.
The 2014 launch is intended to test Orion’s heat shield, parachutes and other systems.
It is expected to reach about 3,450 miles above Earth - more than 10 times beyond where the International Space Station flies - then slam back into the planet’s atmosphere with 84 percent of the force that a spaceship returning from the moon would have.
“It’s really going to stress the heat shield, which is exactly what we’re trying to do,” said NASA program manager Mark Geyer.
A second test flight in 2017 using NASA’s planned heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, is intended to put an unmanned Orion capsule around the moon. The third test flight, targeted for 2021, is expected to include astronauts.
By 2025, NASA intends to send astronauts to explore a near-Earth asteroid and then head on to Mars in the 2030s.
Humans have not flown beyond a few hundred miles above Earth since 1972 when the Apollo missions to the moon ended.
With the retirement of the space shuttles last summer, NASA is dependent on Russia to fly crews to the space station, a $100 billion project of 15 countries that orbits about 240 miles above the planet.
In hopes of breaking Russia’s monopoly, NASA is partnering with four companies interested in developing spaceships to fly government astronauts, as well as private researchers and tourists to the station and other planned outposts in orbits close to Earth.
A new round of partnership agreements is expected to be announced this month, said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.
The Obama administration’s budget request for the deep-space Orion capsule and NASA’s heavy-lift, shuttle-derived rocket is $2.3 billion for the year beginning October 1. It also requested $830 million for the Commercial Crew program.
Legislators are leaning toward increasing the amount spent on the government program and shaving about $300 million off NASA’s investment in commercial spaceships.
The Delta 4 rocket which will be used for Orion’s second test flight is made by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing. Boeing also is the prime contractor for the Space Launch System core stage, which consists of a modified space shuttle fuel tank.
Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, a division of United Technologies Corp is developing the rocket’s J-2X upper stage.
ATK is manufacturing a variant of the shuttle’s solid-fuel booster rockets for the heavy-lift follow-on program.
Editing by Jane Sutton and Cynthia Osterman