We've been going through space withdrawal since NASA retired its last space shuttle a few months ago, but relief is on the way soon. Though manned missions are still a little further in the future, the agency has announced that it plans to launch the first test of its new Orion spacecraft by 2014.
The unmanned flight—designated Exploration Flight Test (ETF) 1—will feature the first real test of the Orion craft, which was part of the Constellation program until that program was scrapped back in 2010. It's now being retooled to fit in with NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS), Constellation's replacement that will hopefully get us to an asteroid and then on to Mars sometime in the next decade or two.
The Orion will launch on a Delta IV Heavy rocket traditionally used for satellites, which will stand in as the launch vehicle for the craft until NASA gets an SLS design they like. The craft will fly two high-apogee orbits around the Earth, higher than any other NASA craft since the end of the Apollo program in the early '70s, before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
The mission of the flight is to collect data, particularly reentry data that will help NASA perfect its SLS design ahead of manned missions.
"The entry part of the test will produce data needed to develop a spacecraft capable of surviving speeds greater than 20,000 mph and safely return astronauts from beyond Earth orbit," Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William Gerstenmaier said. "This test is very important to the detailed design process in terms of the data we expect to receive."
It's not a moon shot or anything, but if Orion does its job we're one step closer to real space exploration again, and with any luck we'll have American astronauts shooting for Mars in no time.