KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — As NASA scurries to reconcile its planned asteroid relocation mission with the newly released National Research Council report’s focus on Mars, the U.S. space agency is confident about one thing: astronauts flying anywhere beyond the international space station will do so aboard an Orion deep-space capsule, the first of which has now been outfitted with a heat shield and attached to a structural service module in preparation for a test flight in December. 

“This a big deal for us,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters during a June 18 update on plans for Exploration Test Flight (EFT)-1. “It’s a tangible piece of our path to Mars.”

NASA’s Orion program manager, Mark Geyer, called the EFT-1 launch, scheduled for Dec. 4, “visible evidence that we’re still exploring.”

It was not until near the end of his comments that Bolden mentioned the Orion precursor mission to send astronauts to an asteroid — or a piece of an asteroid — that is to be robotically relocated into high lunar orbit, an initiative the National Research Council Committee on Human Spaceflight has determined is fraught with technology initiatives that do not specifically support preparations to land astronauts on Mars. 

The House Science Committee began hearings on the panel’s report June 25. For the immediate future NASA has its marching orders, and in a processing hangar last used to prepare an Apollo capsule for flight, technicians installed Orion’s U.S. flag-adorned heat shield and mounted the gumdrop-shaped spacecraft on top of a service module. Still to come: fueling, installing a launch abort system and stacking on a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket. 

Ultimately, Orion capsules will fly on NASA’s new heavy-lift Space Launch System rockets, but for EFT-1 a powerful Delta 4 can do the job of getting the spaceship about 5,800 kilometers from Earth — far enough so that it can slam back into the planet’s atmosphere at 32,000 kilometers per hour. At that speed, Orion’s thermal protection system should heat up to about 2,204 degrees Celsius, proving the shield can protect astronauts returning from deep-space missions. 

The test flight also is intended to collect data on Orion’s computers, software, guidance and control, avionics, parachutes and other systems. “Putting the spacecraft through its paces in space provides data you just can’t get here on Earth,” Bolden said. 

Mission Timeline 

Countdown clocks at the Kennedy Space Center are ticking down toward 8:03 a.m. EST on Dec. 4, when the Delta 4 Heavy is slated to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just south of Kennedy Space Center. Ideally, the rocket would launch at sunrise, providing optimal conditions for monitoring separation events, including the jettisoning of the service module’s fairing panels 5.5 minutes into the flight and the launch abort system some 30 seconds later. 

About two hours after launch, the Delta 4’s second-stage engine will fire up, raising Orion’s orbit to create the high-velocity re-entry. At 3 hours, 45 minutes, the crew module separates from the service module and Delta 4 upper stage. If all goes as planned, Orion will begin encountering Earth’s atmosphere 30 minutes later. At 4 hours, 20 minutes, the capsule’s forward bay cover is jettisoned, allowing its parachute to deploy. 

EFT-1 would come to an end after 4 hours, 25 minutes with the capsule’s splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Recovery teams from the U.S. Navy and NASA will be positioned to retrieve the capsule, which will be refurbished and reused for a launch abort test flight in 2018.  

The first flight with astronauts aboard an Orion capsule is expected in 2020 or 2021. 

Lockheed Martin is building three Orion capsules for NASA, each of which will have a design lifetime of five to 10 missions, said Lockheed’s Orion program manager, Cleon Lacefield. 

NASA already has spent more than $8 billion developing Orion, including about $4.7 billion spent over four years when it was part of the now-defunct Constellation program to return astronauts to the Moon.