MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The Orion space capsule made it to the Kennedy Space Center this week. It's designed to carry humans to the moon. But its first trip, in 2018, will be without a crew. The last time a craft designed to carry humans went to the moon was back in 1972, when NASA ended the lunar program. Now, as Brendan Byrne from member station WMFE in Orlando reports, the Orion program also faces an uncertain future.
BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: The first thing you notice about the Orion spacecraft is just how big it is. It was originally designed to carry seven astronauts, more than twice as many as Apollo. Inside NASA's operations and checkout facility, the agency's Mark Geyer says this program is more than just going back to the moon.
MARK GEYER: If you just wanted to go and plant another flag, you could do it really quick. But the way Orion and SLS are designed is because we're going to do much more than that.
BYRNE: NASA wants to go to Mars ultimately. It's an ambitious goal that includes developing this new capsule and a brand-new expensive rocket system call SLS, or Space Launch System.
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MICHAEL CURIE: Three, two, one and liftoff at dawn - the dawn of Orion and a new era of American space exploration.
BYRNE: This flight back in 2014 was NASA's first major step in the Orion program. It launched from Cape Canaveral and made it safely into a very high orbit. The team gathered critical data on Orion's performance during the flight. NASA's Bill Hill says that information was used to improve the spacecraft that showed up here this week.
BILL HILL: We think we're making really good progress with Orion. It's going fairly well - again, second time through, applying the lessons learned and moving ahead.
BYRNE: Technicians still have to add flight computers, windows and a heat shield. They want to launch for a trip around the moon in 2018. NASA hopes to send Orion into space with people aboard by 2023. As the agency continues to struggle with delays and future funding worries, those critical of the program say NASA should look to the commercial industry.
Private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are focusing on reusability to lower the cost of getting to space. NASA wants to use commercial partners to ferry astronauts to the space station. Industry watchdog Keith Cowing says NASA is unwilling to give up its deep space plans because it wants to lead the way to Mars.
KEITH COWING: They said no, we're going to go back to the Apollo mindset. We're going to build a big giant rocket, and we're the only customer. And we just get Congress to pay for it, and whenever we don't get enough money, we either slow down and complain or we start to sort of cut the capability until somebody says - oh, we can't do that. We've thrown so much money at it already.
BYRNE: Until then, NASA continues to work on Orion and building the next big rocket that will launch from the Space Coast.
For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
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