By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. (Reuters) - A new U.S. spaceship designed to fly astronauts to the moon, Mars and other destinations beyond the International Space Station arrived at a Florida launch pad on Wednesday in preparation for an unmanned test flight next month.
The debut flight of the gumdrop-shaped capsule, called Orion and built by Lockheed Martin Corp for the U.S. space agency NASA, is designed to test the spaceship's computers, heat shield, parachutes and other equipment.
“This is our first step on that journey to Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana told reporters before Orion’s move to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launch pad 37, located just south of the NASA spaceport.
The capsule will be positioned on top of a heavy-lift Delta 4 rocket, manufactured by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Liftoff is scheduled for just after sunrise on Dec. 4.
During the orbital test flight, Orion will fly twice around Earth, traveling as far as 3,600 miles (5,800 km) from the planet so that it can slam back into the atmosphere at a speed of nearly 20,000 miles per hour (32,000 kph). Orion’s heat shield should reach temperatures of about 4,000 Fahrenheit (about 2,200 Celsius).
“This initial test flight, which focuses on some of the highest risks to bringing the crew back safely from exploration missions, is really important to us,” said Ellen Ochoa, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Four-and-a-half hours after launch, Orion is due to make a parachute landing in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles (1,000 km) southwest of San Diego.
“The flight itself into space is huge because we’ll see how the systems operate in the environment, but actually building the first (capsule) is as big,” Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer said.
NASA is spending about $375 million on the test flight, not including the cost of the capsule. Total spending on Orion, including more than $8 billion under the canceled Constellation moon program, is expected to reach about $15 billion.
Future Orion capsules will fly on a new NASA rocket called the Space Launch System, currently under development under a separate $15 billion effort. The rocket, with another unmanned Orion capsule, is expected to debut in November 2018.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Eric Beech)