The first flight of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Capsule will be no sooner than September 2014, the earliest a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket will be available to launch the craft, NASA’s human spaceflight chief told lawmakers in a Sept. 14 hearing.

“We have very solid plans to have the Orion capsule ready to support that 2014 test flight,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. “It should be complete and ready to be turned over to the launch vehicle at the end of next year in December of 2013. What we’re waiting on is the launch vehicle. The current launch vehicle availability is September of 2014.”

The Orion capsule to be used for that mission, know as Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), is currently being outfitted for flight at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“We’re working heat shield problems, we’re working some avionics problems, we’re working some parts problems, that’s all normal stuff we do normally,” Gerstenmaier said. “We’ve got schedule margin, we will have [Orion] ready to go fly at the end of 2013. All we need is a launch vehicle.”

NASA added $375 million to Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ $6.4 billion Orion prime contract to procure a Delta 4 launch for EFT-1 in 2011. During the mission, an unmanned Orion will be launched to orbit and then re-enter the atmosphere at about 32,000 kilometers per hour, nearly 80 percent of the velocity the capsule would reach in a return from lunar orbit. EFT-1 will test the craft’s heat shield, avionics and other systems. A planned 2017 mission calls for using the congressionally mandated Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket to launch an unmanned Orion around the Moon. The mission would be repeated in 2021 with a crew on board for the first time.