NASA makes progress on Orion capsule

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - WFTV is taking a look at the progress NASA is making on its newest spacecraft.

The Orion capsule was designed to take astronauts farther than low-earth orbit, but first, crews have to test it with an unmanned mission in September 2014.

Dan Dumbacher with Exploration Systems Development said the plan for the first manned mission is to retrieve an asteroid.

"Send a crew to it and explore that asteroid and return samples," Dumbacher said.

The Orion spacecraft was ready for its close-up Monday at the Kennedy Space Center as the media got a first look at the future of NASA space travel.

Astronaut Rex Walheim has been helping to test the capsule from a passenger's perspective.

"It is a lot different than the shuttle. The shuttle was a little bit bigger on the inside. It's different technology, too," said Walheim.

Orion's first launch will not be a manned mission; instead, the capsule will be blasted 3,600 miles into space after being fitted with heat shielding and other equipment.

"We'll test the heat shields, the guidance and navigation, the parachutes, avionics; We're going (to) go 3,000 miles into space," said Mark Geyer, Orion program manager.

The building of the capsule has provided hundreds of space workers with paychecks, and it promises to create hundreds more jobs as it's prepped to be mounted on a Delta 4 rocket for liftoff.

It's a welcomed workload for the Space Coast, which is strapped for jobs after the shuttle program ended.

University of Central Florida professor and NASA expert Dale Ketchem believes the decline of the job market on the Space Coast has not been as bad as some feared.

"I think for the most part, it's not as cataclysmic as we feared," Ketchem said. A lot of that has to do with the state, the federal government, the local region, preparing for this even before the great recession hit."

NASA brass said the area will never get back to the manpower needed at Kennedy Space Center for the shuttle program, but eventually, about 10,000 jobs are anticipated.

Bob Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center, said it's important that the United States will soon be sending its astronauts back into space.

"Today, this is a world-class production facility with a flight vehicle, Orion, getting ready to fly next year," Cabana said.

Along with the Orion being prepared, the Vehicle Assembly Building is also being transitioned, along with the launch pads.

The first test of all the new systems will come in September 2014. Then it will be three years until the asteroid mission is attempted.

About 300 workers are assembling the Orion capsule.

This is the first time a spacecraft has actually been assembled at the Kennedy Space Center.