CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Amid great fanfare on Monday, NASA marked a major milestone in its history as it rolled out its successor to the space shuttle -- an Apollo-style capsule called Orion -- before a crowd of several hundred people at the Kennedy Space Center, including government heavyweights and elected officials.
"Orion is ushering in a new era of space exploration beyond our home planet, enabling us to go further than we have ever gone before," Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana said, as he stood in front of the space-bound capsule at the Operations and Checkout Building.
Orion, according to NASA, would be the most advanced spacecraft ever designed and during its maiden test mission -- targeted for 2014 -- will travel farther than any spacecraft designed to carry humans has gone in more than 40 years.
"This is a milestone moment for the Space Coast, NASA and America's space program," said Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator. "Orion's arrival here marks a major accomplishment in the ambitious, new American space program."
In 2017, Orion will be launched by the still-being-developed Space Launch System , a heavy-lift rocket that will carry Orion, its crew and cargo missions beyond low Earth orbit.
NASA said it planned to reach an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s.
The roll-out comes six weeks after SpaceX became the first private company in the world to successfully dock with the International Space Station and as Congress weighs NASA's future.
Though NASA makes up one tenth of one percent of all federal spending, gridlock in Washington and Congressional calls for spending cuts worry some lawmakers.
"We have to be concerned about that," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). "We are in an era of government spending where you have to do more with a limited amount."
In advance of the 2014 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a 400-person Orion production team at Kennedy will apply heat shielding thermal protection systems, avionics and other subsystems to the spacecraft.
Work is already underway by the Ground Systems Development and Operations team at Kennedy Space Center to modify and refurbish facilities used throughout the history of American space flight, including the Vehicle Assembly Building, Launch Control Center, launch pads, mobile launchers and crawler-transporters, in preparation for the next generation of rockets and spacecraft.
The first crewed flight is targeted for 2021, Garver said.