Unfinished Orion crew module. Source
"In two years, human space exploration will make its biggest leap in more than four decades." That's a quote I found from NASA and I couldn't help but get excited. To me, spaceflight is the highest calling of mankind, and I was severely disappointed when NASA's space shuttle program was forced to retire. But now it looks like companies such as SpaceX and Lockheed Martin really are picking up the torch. Moving spaceflight over to the private sector was a risky move, but it might actually be working. I can hope, at least.
The Orion Spacecraft is a part of a contract between Lockheed Martin and NASA. NASA isn't done with space, obviously, but they will no longer be running manned spaceflights alone.
EFT-1 flight plan. Source
The Orion Spacecraft is still under construction, but it will soon be ready for launch. In 2014, the plan is to send the craft into space on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle. This flight, dubbed Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be unmanned for the purposes of testing. The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV) will orbit the Earth twice, reaching a maximum distance of 3,600 miles from the surface of the planet, 15 times farther than the International Space Station. When the orbits are done, Orion will reenter at upwards of 20,000 mph and splash down in the ocean. The purpose of this test flight is to test the the heat shielding on the crew capsule and other performance related things. If everything goes successfully this spacecraft could take humans farther into space than we have been in over four decades. I'm excited.
Orion parachute test. Source
NASA and Lockheed Martin are taking the Orion Spacecraft seriously. Currently parachute tests are underway to ensure that the crew capsule will be able to land safely. Three days ago a parachute test showed that the capsule could land safely even if one of the two drogue parachutes malfunctioned. The next test will see what happens when one of the main parachutes malfunctions. Like all space related things, the Orion Spacecraft has backups upon backups. The crew module alone has numerous backup parachutes, even though the chances of even one parachute malfunctioning are incredibly low.
What the Orion Spacecraft will look like. Source
Ultimately, if all the tests of the Orion Spacecraft go according to plan, we will once again have manned deep space missions. Orion could even take us back to the Moon, or to Mars, or even farther. I am optimistic about where we'll go with this new spacecraft. It'll be years before we make it back out into the solar system again, but I do believe that it will happen eventually.