Orion, expected to be the first NASA spacecraft to journey into deep space, last week was powered up for the first time at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"Orion will take humans farther than we've ever been before. In just about a year we're going to send the Orion test vehicle into space," said Dan Dumbacher, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development.
"The work we're doing now, the momentum we're building, is going to carry us on our first trip to an asteroid and eventually to Mars. No other vehicle currently being built can do that. Orion will, and is the first step," he added.
Orion's systems will be tried out during a test flight slated for the fall of 2014.
The test flight will send the uncrewed spacecraft on a two-orbit, four-hour mission more than 3,600 miles above the Earth's surface --15 times farther away than the International Space Station, according to NASA.
When Orion returns to Earth, the spacecraft will hit temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit while traveling 20,000 miles an hour. That will be a faster re-entry than any NASA craft capable of carrying humans.
"It's been an exciting ride so far, but we're really getting to the good part," said Mark Geyer, Orion program manager, in a statement. "This is where we start to see the finish line. Our team across the country has been working hard to build the hardware that goes into Orion, and now the vehicle and all our plans are coming to life."
Last week, technicians installed an avionics system on the crew module and powered Orion up for the first time. The craft was put through a series of tests.
Orion's vehicle management computer, as well as its power and data distribution systems performed as expected, NASA said.
Over the the past year, more than 66,000 custom-designed parts have arrived at Kennedy Space Center to be installed on the spacecraft, NASA noted.
For instance, Textron Defense Systems and Lockheed Martin have been working on building a new heat shield for Orion. This is the first time NASA has had a heat shield built since one was needed for the Apollo space program in the 1960s.
Orion is scheduled to make its first flight with astronauts aboard in 2021, though NASA hasn't yet decided what its destination will be.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is email@example.com.