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An exclusive inside look at the future of America's manned space program: With the retirement of the space shuttle program, NASA is going back to the future with the Orion spacecraft. "This is the vehicle that can take us to the moon, Mars, an asteroid," said Col. Rex Walheim. Lucy Noland reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on Nov. 20, 2012.
The future of U.S. space exploration is scheduled to lift off with a test flight in about two years that will mark another step forward after the end of NASA's shuttle program.
Orion, target date for the first unmanned test flight is 2014, will sit atop a rocket stack and return to Earth at high speed before parachutes deploy for an ocean splashdown. Although it might look like something from the early days of U.S. space travel, Orion is designed to go much deeper into space.
"This is the vehicle that's going to take us further into the solar system than we've ever been before," said Col. Rex Walheim as he opened the hatch to Orion. "For 40 years we've been stuck in low-Earth orbit, and this is the vehicle that can take us to the moon, to Mars, to an asteroid."
The spacecraft, developed for NASA by Lockheed Martin, is about 16 feet wide and designed to carry four people on missions that could last months. Mission control will use satellite navigation systems to guide the wingless craft to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California.
"It will be coming back at much higher speeds, so the wings would actually make it more difficult to get a thermal protection system that would help you," said Mark Geyer, Orion project manager.
A recovery ship from San Diego will haul the craft and astronauts to Long Beach Harbor.
The craft will travel more than 3,600 miles during the test flight -- 15 times farther from Earth than the International Space Station -- after launch atop a Delta IV rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Orion's heat shield, parachutes and other systems will be put to the test.
The target date for the first manned flight to the moon since 1972 is year 2021. Voyages to an asteroid is planned for the mid-2020s and Mars by the 2030s.