NASA took another step back into the astronaut-launching business when it announced on Monday that last week it had powered up the crew capsule of the Orion spacecraft for the first time. According to the space agency, the test of the spacecraft’s avionics systems, conducted at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is a major milestone in preparing the craft for its first unmanned test flight in the autumn of next year.

The power-up of the Orion is the culmination of a year of assembly and testing of NASA's first-ever manned deep-space craft,which has seen over 66,000 parts installed so far. However, last week’s test was more than just seeing if the lights would go on without blowing a fuse. It was also a test of the capsule’s new power and data distribution system that NASA claims to “use state-of-the-art networking capabilities.” The space agency says that the power and avionics performed as expected.

The real test for the avionics will come next year, when the completed Orion will be fitted atop a Delta IV heavy rocket for an unmanned mission designated Exploration Flight Test-1(EFT-1). During EFT-1, the Orion will be launched into an orbit that will take it over 3,600 mi (5,800 km) away from Earth. The reason for this is that when Orion circles back home, it will be moving at the same speed as a returning deep space mission. It will hit the atmosphere at 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h) and the heat shield will be subjected to a temperature of 4,000º F (2,200º C) – conditions not experienced by a manned spacecraft since the Apollo missions.

"Orion will take humans farther than we've ever been before, and in just about a year we're going to send the Orion test vehicle into space," says Dan Dumbacher, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development in Washington. "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, but Orion will, and EFT-1 is the first step."

Source: NASA