NASA to test flights to go deeper into space

HOUSTON - Five decades since NASA last put a man on the moon, the embattled space program is set to usher in a new era of lunar exploration.

"Orion is the next piece of NASA's exploration future," Orion Program Director Mark Geyer said from the Johnson Space Center.  "It's a system that can take the crew to the moon, to asteroids and also onto Mars."

NASA hopes astronauts will be able to live inside Orion's capsule for weeks at a time on objects much further than the International Space Station.

But first, it must be tested.

"We have a test flight in 2014," Geyer said.  "It'll be unmanned because we're testing the heat shield and parachutes before we put somebody in there."

Then in 2017, there will be another unmanned test.  This time with a large rocket attached.

"That large rocket actually gives us the push, the velocity, to get to places like the moon and Mars," Geyer said. 

The moon will be first, with a target date of 2021.  Then, eventually they'll try to get to an asteroid and Mars.

"It has the capability to go to all those places," Geyer said.  "We'll start with things that are close and do investigations with people. Then we can extend it to go to places like Mars, looking for life."

According to NASA, four astronauts can fit inside Orion, sending them further than any humans have ever gone before.

Eventually, NASA hopes the Orion module will be able to dock with a habitat module and stays in space will last years at a time.

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