One small step for NASA’s next human space exploration program — the arrival of a test capsule for launch in 2014 — lured a cadre of politicians, community leaders, NASA managers and even the brigadier general who runs the nearby Air Force base to the Kennedy Space Center for a welcoming ceremony Monday.

The star of the show was a stripped-down spacecraft called Orion, which is being designed to fly up to four astronauts to near-Earth asteroids, the moon, Mars and other destinations beyond the space station’s orbit.


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NASA — or anyone else, for that matter — hasn’t flown people beyond a few hundred miles above Earth since the end of the Apollo program in 1972. The United States plans to change that in 2021 with a test run around the moon.

At least two other test flights are planned before NASA will put astronauts aboard an Orion capsule. And it was the arrival of the first flight hardware that drew the space glitterati to KSC’s Operations and Checkout Building Monday morning.

The aluminum alloy hull is just the beginning of what eventually will be put on top of a Delta 4 Heavy rocket and shot some 3,450 miles into space. The point of the flight is to test the capsule’s still-to-be-installed heat shield, parachutes and other systems.

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If the test goes as as planned, Orion will slam back into the atmosphere with roughly 84 percent of the forces a spaceship returning from a lunar orbit 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.

Plans call for a second Orion capsule, expected to launch in 2017, to be put into lunar orbit.

Kennedy Space Center, which was hit hard by the retirement of the space shuttles last year, is in the midst of transforming itself into a multipurpose launch site for government, commercial and other other users.

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With the space shuttles heading out to museums, the arrival of a new piece of equipment was especially welcome.

“It’s not a PowerPoint chart. It’s a real spacecraft,” said Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana.

Image: The Orion deep-space capsule that is scheduled to make the first test flight in 2014 is lowered into a workstand at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Gianna Woods/NASA.