CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA offered a peek at the future of Kennedy Space Center on Monday, unveiling the first space-bound Orion spacecraft while marking a huge economic development victory for Florida and the Space Coast.
"This is a milestone moment for the Space Coast, NASA and America's space program," NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told 450 people at a ceremony to celebrate the arrival of the spacecraft.
It's scheduled to blast off on a test flight in 2014 aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The rocket will propel the unmanned spacecraft into an elliptical orbit with a high point of 3,600 miles - 15 times farther from the Earth than the International Space Station.
That test flight and others should keep NASA on track for a human expedition to an asteroid by 2025 and missions to Mars in the mid-2030s.
"Orion is ushering in a new era of space exploration beyond our home planet, enabling us to go further than we've gone before. The future is here, now," said KSC Director Robert Cabana.
It also is ushering in a whole new industrial base at KSC - aerospace manufacturing in addition to traditional launch operations.
"It really is a home run. I hope people know what this means," said Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast.
Rockets and spacecraft have been launched from KSC for 45 years. Assembly and integration work also has been done here.
"But we've never built them before," said Lee Solid, a longtime launch operations manager and adviser to the EDC.
A $35 million state grant enabled Orion manufacturer Lockheed Martin to convert an old Apollo processing facility into a new state-of-the-art spacecraft production line.
The company and its subcontractors employ about 300 people at KSC. That number is expected to grew to 350 or 400 by the end of 2013.
"It's nice to see 350-plus jobs," said Marshall Heard, a former NASA contractor program manager and an EDC adviser. "It's nice to see real hardware. It's great to see exploration getting off the ground, no pun intended."
The gleaming olive green capsule is the shell of the crew module for an Orion spacecraft. It was fabricated in a factory in New Orleans and shipped to KSC.
The Orion production line at KSC will operate somewhat like a high-tech automobile assembly line, where the bare chassis comes in one end of the building and a fully equipped car drives out of the other.
Here at KSC, the crew module shell will be outfitted with critical flight control computers, electrical power, environmental control, guidance and navigation systems, reaction control jets, shuttle-like thermal blankets and tiles, and landing system parachutes, among other things.
The spacecraft service module will be built and equipped in the KSC factory. The crew module will be joined with its domed heat shield, and those components will be integrated with the service module. And then in another building here at KSC, the Orion spacecraft will be equipped with a launch-abort system that would pull the vehicle away from a rocket in an emergency.
Its first test flight will send Orion "father into space than any spacecraft designed for humans has flown in 40 years," Garver said.
The goal is to test the Orion heat shield and other critical systems during the type of high-speed atmospheric reentry a vehicle would make on a return from an asteroid, the moon, or Mars.
An unmanned in-flight abort test is targeted for launch from Cape Canaveral in 2016. NASA's new heavy-lift Space Launch System is slated to fly an unmanned debut in 2017.
NASA hopes to launch Orion on its first piloted flight before 2020. The mission: Send an astronaut crew on a test flight around the moon.
NASA astronaut Nicole Stott says she would hop onboard if she had the chance.
"I would love to fly on that spacecraft. Wouldn't you like to fly on that spacecraft?" Stott said.