With Orion space capsule, NASA plots return to space exploration

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It has been more than 40 years since the famed Apollo missions, when humans stepped into deep space. And at last, NASA intends to get back to its exploration roots.

"This is the first time we've had a vehicle that will truly send us where we've always dreamed of going," NASA's Josh Byerly told Fox News.

The Orion capsule is a part of what NASA had planned as the sprawling and ambitious Constellation project that would offer a replacement for the space shuttle -- and a means to ferry humans into outer space and back to the moon. In under 10 years, it will ride a rocket and take astronauts to places like Mars, NASA hopes.

But it must first endure rigorous testing over the Arizona desert.

"We kind of put it through a different type of environment or even failure mode that we want to protect for," said NASA Project Manager Chris Johnson.

Parachutes are the current focus. At 26,000 feet, the capsule is dropped out of a C-17 cargo jet to see how the chutes will help glide the spacecraft safely back to Earth. The tests are happening at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, a major U.S. military testing installation.

Orion weighs about 20,000 pounds compared to the 250,000 pounds for the shuttle. But don't let the size fool you. There's actually more room in there per person than there was for the shuttle crew.

"The space shuttle looked very large, but the majority of that volume was really for payloads, such as building the International Space Station," said Johnson.

Orion’s first official launch will be in 2014, an unmanned mission, to test its ability to survive reentering the Earth’s atmosphere at more than 20,000 miles per hour. It’ll be sent 15 times deeper into space than the International Space Station. The first time it’s scheduled to carry astronauts is 2021.

The cost of the program is a little less than $1 billion a year.