Human beings haven’t traveled more than 380 miles above the Earth’s surface since Apollo 17, the last lunar landing, in 1972. But later this year, NASA will send a capsule designed for people more than 3,600 miles into deep space.
That capsule, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, is rapidly coming together at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Its three sections include a 16.5-foot-wide conical crew module that can sustain four astronauts for more than three weeks, an emergency launch-abort system and a module for propulsion, power and life-support systems. “On any given day, there are more and more pieces on it,” says John McCullough, the engineer who leads Orion’s 120-person assembly team. “It looks like a spacecraft now.” (Above: a prototype used for recovery practice.)
In December, NASA will send the 25-ton vehicle on its maiden voyage—an unmanned, four-hour flight twice around the Earth, with an apogee of 3,671 miles, that will test the crew module’s re-entry system, which involves parachutes collectively as big as a football field and the largest heat shield ever built. A second unmanned mission, around the Moon, is scheduled for 2017. The hope is that long-distance manned flights can begin in 2021, and that eventual missions will take astronauts to asteroids, or even to Mars. “We’re here to push the frontiers,” McCullough says.