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New NASA spaceship set for launch Thursday; Ernie’s rubber ducky part of the cargo

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Posted at 7:56 AM, Dec 01, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-01 10:07:47-05

By Amanda Barnett

CNN

(CNN) — It looks like a throwback to the Apollo era, but NASA’s new spaceship is roomier and designed to go far beyond the moon — to an asteroid and eventually Mars.

Orion is scheduled to lift off on its first test flight at 7:05 a.m. ET Thursday from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launch window will be open for two hours and 39 minutes.

Orion will climb to an altitude of 3,600 miles (15 times higher than the International Space Station) and orbit Earth twice during the four and a half hour test run, NASA says. The spaceship will splash down in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles off the coast of Baja California. Two U.S. Navy ships, the USS Anchorage and the USNS Salvor, will help NASA recover the capsule.

This first flight won’t carry any astronauts, but it will move NASA closer to getting back in the crewed spaceflight business. The U.S. has had to pay Russia’s space agency to launch astronauts to the space station since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.

Orion’s crew module is designed to carry four people on a 21-day mission. But it could support six astronauts for shorter missions. By comparison, the Apollo capsules held three astronauts and were out in space for about six to 12 days.

Orion will be launched on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, the largest rocket available. NASA is building its own launch system for Orion.

Though Orion’s first flight won’t have people on it, it won’t go up empty. It will carry up the names of more than million people packed on a dime-sized microchip.

“Sesame Street” is sending up some mementos to inspire students about spaceflight including Cookie Monster’s cookie and Ernie’s rubber ducky.

Also going up — an oxygen hose from an Apollo 11 lunar spacesuit and a small sample of lunar soil. A Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil from the Denver Science Museum will be on board and lockers filled with flags, coins, patches, poetry and music.

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