July 2, 2012

Kennedy Turns 50, NASA’s Shows Off Next-Generation Spaceship

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The countdown from ten down to one may seem like an eternity for astronauts who are about to embark on a journey to outer space, but its a feeling that has been happening for over 50 years now on Merritt Island.

The Kennedy Space Center turned 50-years-old on Sunday, making the half-century mark from the time it first opened for business as NASA's Launch Operations Center on July 1, 1962.

Through the years, the space complex has seen its share of American engineering at its finest, including Saturn V rockets and the Space Shuttle program. But, on Monday, Kennedy Space Center hosted a new vehicle that will be the next-generation of astronauts' transportation to space.

NASA showed off its new Orion crew capsule at the 50-year-old complex a day after its birthday, giving the public a glimpse at the capsule a couple of years before its planned 2014 unmanned orbital test flight.

The Orion crew capsule is a deep-space exploration program that could ultimately send humans back to the moon, or on to new landing zones like asteroids and Mars.

"Orion's arrival at Kennedy is an important step in meeting the president's goal to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s," NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said in a statement. "As NASA acquires services for delivery of cargo and crew to the International Space Station and other low-Earth destinations from private companies, NASA can concentrate its efforts on building America's next generation space exploration system to reach destinations for discovery in deep space."

The space agency said that Orion will be the most advanced spacecraft ever designed, capable of re-entry from deep space, and providing emergency abort capabilities.

The 2014 Exploration Flight Test-1 will be an unmanned mission that will see that Orion travels 3,600 miles above the Earth's surface, which is 15 times farther than the International Space Station's orbit.

The flight test will be farther than any spacecraft designed to carry humans has gone in more than 40 years. NASA said the primary objective of the flight is to understand Orion's heat shield performance at speeds generated during a return from deep space.

A team at Kennedy will be applying heat shielding thermal protection systems, avionics and other subsystems to the spacecraft before the 2014 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

"Work is under way on America's next great spacecraft that will surpass the boundaries within which humanity has been held," William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a press release.

"In a facility that once processed cargo for space shuttles and various components for the International Space Station, hundreds of people at Kennedy are coupling advanced hardware assembly systems with a new human-rated spacecraft designed for deep space travel," Gerstenmaier continued. "It is a fitting testament to the American work force at Kennedy that has enabled the exploration of space for 50 years is again working on hardware that will extend human presence throughout the solar system."

NASA said that by 2017, Orion will be launched by NASA's new heavy-lift rocket, or Space Launch System (SLS). The rocket system will provide an entirely new capability for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, the space agency said.

"Designed to be flexible for launching spacecraft for crew and cargo missions, SLS will enable new missions of exploration and expand human presence across the solar system," NASA wrote in a press release.