NASA, which usually hypes its major space efforts, has revealed plans for an unmanned test flight of its Orion space capsule in a low-profile notice Monday on the Federal Business Opportunities procurement website.
The space agency said the orbital flight planned for early in 2014 is "key to providing test data that is critical to influence design decisions and validate Orion spacecraft systems in flight environments that cannot be duplicated on the ground."
Orion is designed to carry astronauts to the moon and possibly Mars.
The agency said this flight will test the entry, descent and landing functions, including the heat shield, propulsion, guidance, navigation, control and parachute recovery systems of the Orion capsule, designed to carry four astronauts on deep space missions, and return to Earth with an ocean splashdown, as the Apollo moon missions did.
NASA awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. an $8 billion contract to develop Orion in August 2006 and in Monday's notice said it plans to modify that contract to cover the 2014 test flight.
Josh Byerly, a NASA spokesman at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, pegged the cost of the 2014 test flight at $370 million. He added the agency is in the process of determining what type of rocket to use for the test flight, as NASA's next-generation space launch system rocket will not be ready until 2017.
Byerly said the Orion capsule used on the test flight will be operational, minus crew environmental systems as the test is an unmanned flight.
NASA issued a press release announcing the proposed test flight after this story was posted.