The spacecraft foreseen to bring humans to Mars one day has started preparations for its first test flight in December.
Nasa engineers have rolled out the Orion capsule from a processing hangar at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after having finished its assembly.
"This is a pretty historic moment for us," Scott Wilson, Nasa's Orion production operations manager, told reporters as workers prepared to move the capsule to a fuelling depot. "This marks the end of the assembly process for the spacecraft."
The unmanned version of the spacecraft, a result of a decade-long development process, will be lifted by a Delta 4 Heavy rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on 4 December. It will fly to an altitude of about 5,800 km from Earth, 14 times farther than the International Space Station, and return back for an atmospheric re-entry test.
The capsule will hit the Earth’s atmosphere at the speed of 32,000 km/h, hurtling through the air to test its heat protection shield, which could heat up to a blistering 2,200 degrees Celsius. Unlike communication satellites or other space debris, the capsule has to to survive the re-entry intact to provide complete protection to its future crew. A manned test is expected to take place around 2021.
Orion, originally a part of Nasa’s Constellation programme, cancelled by President Barrack Obama in 2011, was built jointly by Nasa and aerospace and defence company Lockheed Martin. Nasa has already invested more than $9bn (£5.53bn) into the capsule’s development.
The agency has bold plans for Orion, hoping the capsule will help expand the frontiers of space exploration and bring humanity to asteroids, Mars and beyond.
Following the retirement of the Space Shuttle, Nasa has focused on developing deep space exploration capabilities and opted to pay private companies to secure transportation to the International Space Station.
Two privately developed cargo vehicles are already servicing the ISS, SpaceX-operated Dragon and Sierra Nevada’s Cygnus. The two companies, together with Boeing, are competing for a contract to ferry astronauts to the orbital outpost, starting at the end of the decade.
Since the Space Shuttle retirement, Nasa has been forced to purchase seats on Russian Soyuz to get its astronauts to the ISS.