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NASA's next spaceship took a big step toward its historic December spaceflight debut on Tuesday night.
The Orion capsule was rolled out from the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida and moved next door, to Launch Complex 37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Orion will be launched from the Cape on Dec. 4, on an uncrewed test mission to test out a variety of its systems, including the capsule's heat shield and other re-entry technologies.
The gumdrop-shaped capsule was encased in its 52-foot-tall (16-meter-tall) protective fairing for the trip. [Photos: NASA's Next Spaceship]
Orion is designed to carry astronauts to deep-space destinations such as asteroids and Mars. On Dec. 4, engineers will get their first look at how the capsule performs away from Earth. During the mission, known as Exploration Flight Test-1, or EFT-1, Orion will fly about 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometers) from the planet, then come rocketing back at high speeds.
"We're going to test really, I would say, the riskiest parts on a mission in ascent and entry — things like the fairing separations, heat shield, parachutes, entry navigation and guidance," Orion program manager Mark Geyer said during a news briefing.
EFT-1 will mark the farthest a NASA vehicle built for human spaceflight vehicle has flown since the last Apollo moon mission came back to Earth in December 1972.
On Dec. 4, Orion will launch atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket. However, the capsule's crewed missions will use NASA's Space Launch System megarocket, which is currently in development. SLS and Orion are scheduled to fly together for the first time in 2017 or 2018 during an uncrewed test; their first crewed mission is pegged for 2021.