Why NASA's Orion Is Not Your Granddaddy's Spacecraft

PHOTO: Engineers and technicians at Space Launch Complex 37 move Orion into place in the service structure so the spacecraft can be lifted and joined to the top of the Delta IV Heavy rocket on Nov. 12, 2014.PlayRadislav Sinyak\NASA
WATCH NASA’s Orion Spacecraft Suffers Setbacks

Orion is not your granddaddy's spacecraft. Think of it as an Apollo spacecraft on steroids, and the spacecraft of NASA's dreams -- a machine that could take astronauts out into deep space where no one has gone before.

While Orion has the capability to take astronauts to capture an asteroid or build a colony on the Moon or go beyond to Mars, neither Congress nor President Obama have mandated any missions like this yet.

Kelly Smith is the trajectory officer for Orion during its four-and-a-half hour test mission on Thursday. His is from a generation that doesn't remember where they were the day Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, because he wasn't born yet. His YouTube video "Orion: Trial By Fire" steps through Orion's flight.

Smith acknowledged that the same design that allowed Neil Armstrong to leave his footprints on the Moon could take astronauts even further, but with modern technology.

"We've got smartphones in our pockets, but the physics and atmosphere hasn't changed since the 60's," Smith told ABC News on Tuesday. "This capsule shape facilitates deep space exploration. The shuttle could never return from deep space locations. It could not withstand the extreme G loads and heating. Orion has been designed for those challenging environments."

Orion will launch on a Delta IV Heavy Rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Thursday morning and orbit Earth two and a half times before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles off the coast of California.

This mission is called EFT 1, an unmanned flight test to see if the heat shield can withstand the heat of re-entry when it comes screaming back to Earth at 20,000 mph, hitting temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit -- twice as hot as molten lava.

If this test succeeds, the next step will be another launch to circle the Moon in 2018, then a manned mission to the Moon in 2020.