NASA’s next manned spacecraft the Orion, will have an unmanned workout on Thursday morning.

Tomorrow will see the capsule do a double orbit of the Earth expected to last about four and half hours and represents the first new spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, FL in some time.

NASA To Launch Orion Test Flight Thursday

“We haven’t had this feeling in a while, since the end of the shuttle program,” said Mike Sarafin, the lead flight director who is presently at Mission Control in Houston, TX. “Launching an American spacecraft from American soil and beginning something new, in this case exploring deep space.”

Space shuttle veterans pepper NASA’s Orion program

The bulk of the team behind Orion is built of former shuttle veterans. In fact, Sarafin’s entire team at Johnson Space Center in Houston is made up of former shuttle flight controllers.

The goal of Orion is to travel a distance of around 3,600 miles which would take it about 15 times the distance of the Earth to the International Space Station.

“In the sense that we are beginning a new mission, it is, I think, consistent with … the beginning of shuttle, the beginning of Apollo,” said NASA’s Orion program manager, Mark Geyer. “It’s a new mission for us, starting in the region of the moon and then beyond.”

Both visitors and the press alike have been flocking to the Kennedy Space Center with an expected 25,000 people set to view the launch along with 650 journalists. A crowd of that size at Kennedy hasn’t been seen since the last flight of the space shuttle three years ago.

Excitement surrounds the launch

“It’s an exciting time,” Jeff Angermeier, ground support mission manager, said from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. “You can feel the buzz.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr.: “For the first time in more than 40 years, this nation is going to launch a spacecraft intended to carry humans beyond low-Earth orbit. That’s a big deal.”

A Delta IV rocket will be used to lift Orion into orbit in lieu of the megarocket that NASA is still working on that will be used for Orion’s planned manned flights in the 2020s with a view towards Mars in the 2030s. Additionally, the flight won’t be manned until the capsule is properly tested.

“It’s important it’s unmanned because we actually structured the test to fly the riskiest pieces of the flight,” Orion manager Geyer told reporters. “This is the time to do it, when it’s unmanned, and so we intend to stress the systems and make sure they behave as we designed them.”