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The Next Generation of Spacecraft
Orion is a multi-purpose crew vehicle destined to travel farther than any crewed spacecraft in more than 40 years.
Built by Lockheed Martin, Orion harkens back to the Apollo-generation of spaceships, but is filled with cutting-edge technology designed to take astronauts past the current threshold of low-Earth orbit and out into deep space. This technology includes a heat shield capable of protecting the occupants of the ship from temperatures up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit and a closed-loop life support system capable of protecting astronauts even in the case of contamination or a loss of pressure.
It is being designed for up to four crew members and to carry out missions in deep space lasting between three weeks and seven months. It will allow for a broad range of human body sizes and is designed to accomodate astronauts ranging in size from 4’10” to 6’5”. Having successfully completed its first test flight in December 2014, the next phase of Orion's development will be to travel around the moon. But first, it has intermediate goals to meet, including verifying the launch abort system in 2019. It will not be used for manned missions until at least 2021, when NASA hopes it will be available to travel to an asteroid and possibly even on the journey to Mars.
Learn more about Orion from NASA's website, and then check out some of Science NetLinks' collection Celebrating Space Exploration. The lesson Mission: Mars and the blog post Spotlight on Science Writers: Pascal Lee would also be excellent places to begin.