houston, Texas -
(NBC News) NASA hopes to put a man on Mars, but the first step is building a spaceship for a trip to the moon or an asteroid first.
Astronauts are already training for such a mission at Johnson Space Center, testing a new spacesuit and using and using tools to gather soil samples in a simulated environment similar to that of an asteroid.
"So I can learn a lot about how the universe formed, what were the initial building blocks of the universe, and those types of things," says astronaut Rex Walheim. "The science is really exciting from that perspective, but also we need to learn how to live farther away from space."
Walheim is working on Orion, a program designed to take us beyond the moon and perhaps one day mars.
"It allows us to flush out a lot of the systems, make sure they work the way we expect, and also do some pretty cool science," says Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer.
They're also practicing with a mock-up of the Orion crew capsule, where the astronauts would live, sleep and explore places we've never been before.
Later this year, a rocket will carry the Orion into space for the first real test flight. It is the first big step at getting the U.S. back to using our own spaceships to put astronauts in space.
"We're going to fly this year. Then exploration is real and we're on the path," Geyer says.
The first big test of Orion is scheduled for December.
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