The American public is getting its first look at the new Orion spacecraft that will be taking humans back to the surface of the moon by the year 2020. The Orion is part of a new fleet of vehicles that will make 21st Century space exploration possible.
Weighing in at more than 8,000 kilograms, the Orion crew exploration vehicle is targeted to begin carrying humans to the International Space Station in 2015 and then to the moon in 2020, 50 years after man first stepped foot on its surface.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration displayed a full-scale model of Orion Monday on the National Mall in downtown Washington.
Don Pearson is the project manager of NASA's Post Landing Orion Recovery project. His team is in charge of testing Orion's ability to launch in all weather conditions and rescuing the crew when it lands back in the ocean.
"What we're trying to do is demonstrate that we can recover this capsule when the waves are up near 12 foot in height and winds on the order of 35 to 40 knots," said Don Pearson. "If we can do that then we'll have a fairly good launch probability."
Orion is nearly double the size of its predecessor, the Apollo, allowing it to transport up to six crew members to the Space Station and four to the moon.
School kids clamored to touch the silver, conical-shaped capsule that stood out among the limestone monuments dotting the Mall.
Aunrika Shabazz is from Saint Paul, Minnesota, and attends a high school specializing in science and aerospace learning. Aunrika says she and her classmates were surprised to see a spacecraft up close on their field trip.
"It's still cool like seeing it because I've never see one - I've seen the ones like in the museums, but it's cool seeing it outside," said Aunrika Shabazz.
Don Pearson says he hopes showcasing Orion and talking about the lunar mission will reenergize a new generation of children to become interested in science and math.
"The first time we launched the space shuttle, people were pretty excited about it," he said. "Taking an airplane, turning it on its side, and launching it. And people looked at that and said, 'Wow, that's cool.' Well we're hoping the same kind of thing will happen here."
Pearson says the ultimate goal of putting astronauts back on the moon will be to get them ready to go to Mars, a three-year round trip journey that Pearson hopes the school kids he met Monday will someday help command.