It's been awhile since humans have been outside of Earth's orbit, but NASA is planning to change that thanks to its next-generation manned spaceflight capsule, Orion.
While it looks superficially similar to an Apollo-era capsule, Orion is stocked with the latest space tech and designed for missions going deep into space, even all the way to Mars. A test flight scheduled for December 4 marks a tremendous step forward in Orion's development.
Orion was still being built when this photo was taken in 2012. It shows the crew module's final weld before the capsule was sent along for installation of heat shielding and avionics systems. After years of development, Orion is now set for its first test flight, scheduled for December 4.
To help get the general public excited about Orion, NASA launched a program that lets people sign up to have their names inscribed on a microchip that will fly along with the spacecraft on its first test flight, and then on future missions. The microchip holds more than a million names. Participants hope to one day have their names sent all the way to Mars.
A microchip with more than a million names isn't the only unusual object to hitch a ride on Orion's first test flight. These technicians are holding a giant cookie that will also fly along. Some "Sesame Street" characters have supplied goodies to go into space. Cookie Monster's cookie, Ernie's rubber ducky, Slimey the Worm and Grover's cape will all soar into space when Orion takes off.
The advanced Orion crew module will work in conjunction with a new spacesuit when it eventually hosts humans onboard. The Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES) will integrate fully with Orion's life-support systems. Here, ACES undergoes testing in a device that suspends the wearer to mimic movement in a microgravity environment.
This test version of the Orion spacecraft undergoes a water-impact test in 2012. It was dropped from 25 feet, creating the splash seen here. NASA has been preparing for a water recovery of the next-gen crew module. Orion's first test flight is scheduled for December 4. If all goes well, it will land in the Pacific Ocean and be recovered and returned to land.
NASA's pre-launch activities are in full swing in anticipation of Orion's first test flight, scheduled for December 4. This photo was taken at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 37. It shows technicians preparing to mount the Orion spacecraft onto the rocket that will take it into space.
If the weather cooperates, NASA will send the Orion spacecraft on its first test flight on December 4. Orion and the Delta IV Heavy rocket are shown together at the launch site in Florida. NASA will be watching closely to see how Orion's heat shield stands up to 4,000-degree temperatures. This test flight is a big step toward eventual manned flights using Orion to take humans deep into space.
The Orion spacecraft isn't the only new technology getting a tryout when it goes for its first test flight. The old Apollo-era countdown clock that famously marked the start of many missions over decades of service has been retired in favor of this new digital display. The LED countdown clock will show video as well as the traditional numbers leading up to launch.
Orion's first test flight, scheduled for December 4, will involve sending the next-gen spacecraft into orbit for a couple of runs around the planet before it returns with an anticipated splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. This artist's concept shows what Orion is expected to look like as it adjusts itself for reentry.