WASHINGTON — Components of the Orion crew capsule that will orbit the Earth in a 2014 test flight are to be shipped to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., for final assembly by the end of April, prime contractor Lockheed Martin’s top human spaceflight executive said.

Lockheed recently “completed a major weld of the cylindrical section of the [Orion] body where we’re welding the forward hatch sections and heat shield sections,” John Karas, Lockheed Martin Space Systems vice president and general manager of human spaceflight, said March 28. “By the end of next month, we’ll ship those to the Cape for final assembly of the entire first flight article Orion.”

Lockheed expects to complete the Orion capsule that will fly the 2014 test flight by October 2013, Karas added.

Karas spoke as part of a panel on NASA’s human spaceflight program at the 2012 Robert H. Goddard Memorial Symposium in Greenbelt, Md.

The first Orion flight, dubbed Exploration Flight Test 1, is scheduled for December 2014. An unmanned Orion will launch to space aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket, orbit the Earth twice, then re-enter the atmosphere and splash down somewhere in a 13-square-kilometer area off the coast of San Diego, Karas said.

During its descent, Orion will attain about 80 percent of the speed it would reach during a return from lunar space. This will give NASA an idea of how well Orion’s heat shield holds up during re-entry, Karas said.

“Essentially, 11 of the 16 top risks will be retired here,” Karas said of the 2014 flight, which will launch from Pad 37 at the Cape.

The Orion capsule used for Exploration Flight Test 1 will fly once more after that, Karas said, in a high-altitude launch-abort system test slated for 2015.

“This is flying a test with an Air Force-provided booster to get us up to the test point, which is matching altitude and velocity of where we would be on [the Space Launch System] during a worst-case condition to demonstrate abort capability,” Larry Price, Lockheed Martin’s deputy program manager for Orion, said in a March 30 phone interview. “They call it an ATB, abort-test booster, which is provided by the Air Force through NASA.”

NASA is paying Lockheed about $6.8 billion to build Orion. That figure includes $375 million added to Lockheed’s contract in December to cover the cost of the Delta 4 rocket that will power the 2014 test flight.

Orion’s first launch atop the Space Launch System — the heavy-lift rocket NASA is developing for deep-space missions — is slated for 2017. Orion’s first crewed flight is targeted for 2021.

In its 2013 budget request, NASA proposed trimming funds for Orion vehicle development to $968.5 million from the $1.14 billion approved for 2012. The move has drawn criticism from some U.S. lawmakers that NASA is deliberately slow-rolling the work.

NASA officials say the changes are necessary to keep Orion’s development in sync with that of the Space Launch System, which got off to a later start.

“You will see us metering content, phasing content appropriately in order to do everything we can to hit the 2014 and 2017 timeframe,” Dan Dumbacher, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems, said at the Goddard symposium.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.