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NASA selects Orion moon ship as exploration capsule

Posted: May 24, 2011

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NASA announced Tuesday the design of a new deep space exploration capsule will be based on the canceled Orion vehicle, a spacecraft in which the space agency has invested more than $5 billion since 2006.

Artist's concept of an Orion-based crew capsule in orbit around Mars. Credit: NASA
But despite the capsule's familiar design, a senior NASA official could not say when the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle would be ready to carry astronauts into space or how much it will cost.

"In terms of deep space exploration, we hope to have test flights in this decade," said Doug Cooke, the chief of NASA's exploration division. "We're not exactly sure when, but certainly as early possible."

Lockheed Martin Corp., the Orion spacecraft's prime contractor, says the MPCV could be ready for initial crewed operations in low Earth orbit by 2016. But Cooke did not specify a timetable for Orion's readiness.

NASA is still reviewing plans for a heavy-lift launch vehicle to send the MPCV toward distant destinations. Called the Space Launch System, or SLS, the powerful booster must boost 130 metric tons into low Earth orbit under a mandate set by Congress.

Cooke said NASA is on track to finish those studies and select a reference design for the SLS in the "early summer" of this year. Accurate cost and schedule estimates will not be available until NASA settles on a design for both the crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket, Cooke said.

"We still have to do the integrated cost and schedule to understand the phasing of it, and that will affect how much it ultimately costs," Cooke said. "We have to work an integrated approach with both vehicles."

In the wake of the Constellation program's cancellation, NASA is turning to commercial spacecraft to carry astronauts into low Earth orbit following the retirement of the space shuttle. The agency expects to have one or more privately-owned space systems ready for transportation services by 2015 or 2016.

While the White House directed NASA to invigorate the commercial market, Congress struck a compromise for the agency to kick off development of a new rocket and capsule to take the place of the Ares launcher family and Orion spacecraft from the ill-fated Constellation moon program.

"The NASA Authorization Act lays out a clear path forward for us by handing off transportation to the International Space Station to our private sector partners, so we can focus on deep space exploration," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "As we aggressively continue our work on a heavy-lift launch vehicle, we are moving forward with an existing contract to keep development of our new crew vehicle on track."

NASA and Lockheed Martin are working on efficiency initiatives to reduce the ultimate cost of the MPCV, officials said.

An Orion ground test article is being tested at Lockheed Martin's facility in Denver. Credit: Lockheed Martin
"NASA's designation of the Orion crew exploration vehicle as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) provides our nation with a sound solution for deep space mission capability within the currently proposed budgets," Lockheed Martin said in a statement. "This path forward will soon enable humans to venture out into the cosmos to explore and study interplanetary destinations never before seen or touched by mankind."

Weighing up to 50,000 pounds, the MPCV is designed to carry four astronauts into space for 21-day missions. It has a pressurized volume of 690 cubic feet, with 316 cubic feet of habitable space, according to NASA.

For voyages to asteroids, the moon and Mars, the MPCV could be accompanied by a habitation module to extend the capsule's stay in space.

Congress directed NASA to recycle the Orion design for the MPCV in authorization and spending legislation, and Cooke said the Orion's ability to travel into deep space and return to Earth at high velocities confirmed its viability as an exploration vehicle.

"It made the most sense to stick with it," Cooke told reporters Tuesday.

NASA and Lockheed Martin designed the Orion capsule to reach the moon in the Constellation progam, which was canceled last year amid mounting cost and schedule concerns.

"We found and confirmed that the design approach we've got (with Orion) is really the best for this type of mission beyond low Earth orbit," Cooke said.

Since the termination of the Constellation program, Lockheed Martin launched internal study groups to analyze other potential applications for the Orion vehicle. Company engineers concluded the spacecraft is capable of long-duration missions to asteroids and the rocky moons of Mars.

With a tough heat shield, a broadband communications system, a powerful rocket motor, and solar arrays for electricity, the Orion could conceivably survive in space much longer than stipulated in design requirements, according to Josh Hopkins, an engineer in Lockheed Martin's advanced programs group.

"We were surprised by how well the Orion design works for other missions," Hopkins said.