NASA will use not-so-new technology for next spacecraft

NASA Orion spacecraft finds new life as future astronaut system

nasa orion
NASA today said it will base a new spacecraft capable of carrying humans into low-earth orbit and beyond on existing technology developed for the now defunct Constellation system.

Specifically, the new system will be based on designs originally planned for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and those plans now will the basis for a new spacecraft known as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. In picking the MPCV, NASA is following through on a statement it made in January that it would indeed use Orion technology as the underlying system in any new spacecraft.  

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In that statement NASA said: The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directs NASA to develop an MPCV that continues the advanced development of the human safety features, designs, and systems in the Orion Project. The Act also provides a series of minimum capability requirements that the MPCV must achieve:

  • The vehicle must be able to serve as the primary crew vehicle for missions beyond LEO;
  • The vehicle must be able to conduct regular in-space operations, such as rendezvous, docking and extra-vehicular activities, in conjunction with payloads delivered by the [heavy-lift rocket] or other vehicles in preparation for missions beyond LEO;
  • The vehicle must provide an alternative means of crew and cargo transportation to and from the International Space Station, in the event other vehicles, whether commercial or partner-supplied, are unable to perform that function;
  • The vehicle must have the capability for efficient and timely evolution.
  • The Act also sets a goal of full operational capability not later than December 31, 2016.

NASA said the Act authorizes a total of $3.92 billion for MPCV development over a three-year period, beginning with $1.12B authorized in FY 2011. "However, the final MPCV funding guidelines are pending the enactment of FY 2011 appropriations.5 In the meantime, NASA is proceeding based on the FY 2011 Continuing Resolution funding and budgetary projections derived from the Authorization Act guidance. The final amount appropriated for MPCV development efforts in FY 2011 - and the phasing of funding reflected in the five-year plan in the President's FY 2012 budget request - are important factors that will drive NASA's final planning efforts for the MPCV," NASA said.

For now, Lockheed Martin will continue working to develop the MPCV, which has also seen life as a proposed emergency escape vehicle for astronauts on the ISS. The spacecraft will carry four astronauts for 21-day missions and be able to land in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast. The spacecraft will have a pressurized volume of 690 cubic feet, with 316 cubic feet of habitable space. It is designed to be 10 times safer during ascent and entry than its predecessor, the space shuttle.

NASA had been developing the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and in 2008 described it as being similar in shape to the Apollo spacecraft, but significantly larger. Orion was to be 16.5 feet in diameter and weigh 25 tons. Inside, it was designed to have more than two-and-a-half times the volume of NASA's Apollo capsule. The larger size would allow Orion to accommodate four crew members on missions to the moon, and six on missions to the International Space Station or Mars-bound spacecraft. Orion was originally scheduled to fly its first missions to the space station by 2014 and carry out a first flight to the moon by 2020.

NASA now too must settle on the heavy-lift rocket that would carry the MPCV into space. In November NASA spread $7.5 million across 13 companies to research the systems needed for such a heavy launch space rocket.

NASA said it will use the recommendations from these companies to evaluate heavy-lift launch vehicle concepts and propulsion technologies that will help lay the groundwork for the rocket that could launch humans to asteroids, Lagrange points, the moon and Mars.

"These trade studies will provide a look at innovative launch vehicle concepts, propulsion technologies, and processes that should make human exploration missions more affordable," said Doug Cooke, associate administrator of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in a statement.  "If we are to travel beyond low-Earth orbit, industry's collaboration is essential to reduce the cost associated with our future exploration goals and approaches and make the heavy-lift vehicle affordable to build and fly."

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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