NASA unveils new deep-space exploration vehicle

Based on the Orion spacecraft, the new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is the space agency's plan for future manned deep-flight missions.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
This is the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle being assembled by Lockheed Martin at one of its facilities in Colorado. Lockheed Martin

NASA today announced its plans for its next-generation deep space crew exploration vehicle.

President Barack Obama last year pulled the plug on the space agency's long-planned and multibillion dollar Constellation program. That system, which was expected to replace the Space Shuttle after its retirement this year, was thought to be central to bringing humans back to the moon, and possibly even to Mars.

But today, the space agency unveiled its plans for what it called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), a new spacecraft based on the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle that was related to the Constellation program.

While Obama's 2010 order essentially handed control of launches to the International Space Station to private industry--or to the Russians--NASA said today that it intends to "aggressively" pursue options for a new heavy lift launch vehicle capable of taking humans to deep space. The MPCV would presumably be placed atop any such rocket.

"We are committed to human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and look forward to developing the next generation of systems to take us there," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden in a release. "The NASA Authorization Act (Obama's 2010 order) 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."

According to NASA, Lockheed Martin has the contract to develop the MPCV. The new spacecraft should be capable of ferrying four astronauts on 21-day missions. It is expected to offer 316 cubic feet of "habitable space," NASA said, as well as a pressurized volume of 690 cubic feet. "It is designed to be 10 times safer during ascent and entry than its predecessor, the Space Shuttle," NASA said.

The new vehicle is comprised of three main systems, NASA said:

The MPCV has three main systems, as seen here. NASA

Launch Abort System

The launch abort system (LAS), positioned on a tower atop the crew module, activates within milliseconds to propel the crew module to safety in the event of an emergency during launch or climb to orbit. The system also protects the crew module from dangerous atmospheric loads and heating, then jettisons after the MPCV is through the initial mission phase of ascent to orbit.

Crew Module

The crew module is the transportation capsule that provides a safe habitat for the crew, provides storage for consumables and research instruments, and serves as the docking port for crew transfers. The crew module is the only part of the MPCV that returns to Earth after each mission.

Service Module

The service module supports the crew module from launch through separation prior to reentry. It provides in-space propulsion capability for orbital transfer, attitude control, and high altitude ascent aborts. When mated with the crew module, it provides the water, oxygen and nitrogen needed for a habitable environment, generates and stores electrical power while on-orbit, and maintains the temperature of the vehicle's systems and components.

This module can also transport unpressurized cargo and scientific payloads.

For a more in-depth at the MPCV's role in the space program, read our story here.