NASA picks Orion-type capsule for deep space missions

Winning a new lease on life, NASA will develop a modified version of the Orion capsule, originally intended for the Bush administration's moon program, to carry astronauts on future flights to deep space targets.

William Harwood
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.
William Harwood
5 min read

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--A version of the Bush administration's Orion moon capsule, written off by the Obama administration and then resurrected as a space station lifeboat, will be developed instead for use in future manned flights to deep space targets beyond Earth orbit, the agency announced today.

Douglas Cooke, associate administrator of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, told reporters the Orion concept, described by former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin as "Apollo on steroids," is the most capable spacecraft currently on the drawing board for meeting the Obama administration's "flexible path" approach to deep space exploration.

The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV, shown with a launch escape rocket and service module. NASA plans to develop the capsule for use in future missions to deep space targets. NASA

"This is the Orion-based concept that was designed for deep space missions and had the appropriate accommodations and design requirements for that type of mission," he said. "We did look at alternatives in some of the systems designs we're seeing in the various concepts that are being proposed, for instance, for commercial (vehicles)...And after studying those, we found the design approach we've got is really the best for this type of mission beyond low-Earth orbit."

Developed by Lockheed Martin, the solar-powered Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV, would carry four astronauts on missions lasting up to three weeks, much longer when attached to a larger interplanetary habitation module of some sort. The capsule would have a pressurized volume of 690 cubic feet, weigh approximately 23 tons at launch and end its missions with splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Using an advanced abort system and a high-performance heat shield, the MPCV is expected to be 10 times safer than the space shuttle.

But Cooke said he does not yet know what it will cost to develop the MPCV, when the first manned or unmanned test fight might launch, how much individual vehicles will cost, what rocket will be used to launch them or where they might end up going. To date, he said, NASA has spent more than $5 billion on the Orion concept.

"When? Basically, we are still working on our integrated architecture; that includes the space launch system, along with ground systems and other supporting projects in order to put together integrated cost and schedule," he said. "So at this point, we don't have a specific date, although we are working diligently to understand earliest possible test dates within the approach that we are working to lay out."

In 2004, the Bush administration ordered NASA to complete the International Space Station and retire the space shuttle by the end of fiscal 2010, and to channel the savings into development of new rockets and spacecraft designed to support long-duration outposts on the moon by the early 2020s. Since then, the final shuttle flight has slipped to this July.

During Griffin's tenure, NASA came up with the Constellation program to implement the president's directive. The Orion capsule was intended to carry astronauts to and from the moon and to service the International Space Station as required. Two rockets were envisioned, the Ares I to launch Orion capsules into Earth orbit, and a huge heavy-lift Ares V to boost lunar landers and attached Orion spacecraft to the moon.

The Obama administration canceled the Constellation program and ordered NASA to adopt a two-pronged approach to space flight that depends on the destination. For flights to and from the space station in low-Earth orbit, NASA will rely on private industry to develop the necessary rockets and spacecraft. The administration told NASA to concentrate on developing new technology and systems that could eventually be used for deep space exploration. No firm timetables or specific targets were set.

Faced with widespread criticism, the president later said he would support continued development of Orion as a lifeboat for the International Space Station to help end NASA's post-shuttle reliance on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. And the president said NASA should start working on a new heavy lift rocket to launch deep space missions in the 2015 time frame.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, and other key lawmakers successfully lobbied for appropriations language calling for immediate work on the new rocket, with initial test flights starting around 2016. With the decision to proceed with development of an Orion derivative, NASA is expected to announce what sort of rocket will be built to launch it later this summer.

The decision to proceed with development of the MPCV "is a good thing," Nelson said in a statement. "It shows real progress toward the goal of exploring deep space and eventually getting to Mars. And it's good for Florida, too, because hundreds of Kennedy Space Center employees will have jobs assembling the new crew capsule at the center's Operations and Checkout building."

An artist's concept of a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle flying in concert with another spacecraft in orbit around Mars. NASA

In a statement, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said the agency is "committed to human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and look forward to developing the next generation of systems to take us there...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."

As currently envisioned, the MPCV would support four astronauts on short-duration flights of less than 21 days. For longer missions to asteroids or even Mars, the capsules would dock with a larger spacecraft of some sort that would provide more room for the crew while in transit.

"The approach on this vehicle is primarily for launch and entry with in-space capabilities for certain periods of time," Cooke said. "Generally, for long-term missions that are much longer than 21 days, we would assume we have in-space habitation in a larger module just because the crew needs more space for a longer period of time.

"So basically, during these missions--whether it be to lunar orbit or the near-Earth asteroids or to Mars or the moons of Mars--this vehicle would be maintained in a dormant mode while a crew would be in another module, which would have longer-term consumables and capabilities to support them. But basically this vehicle is the one we would use for any of those missions, including Mars."

As for serving as a lifeboat on the International Space Station, an idea that never gained traction in the space community, Cooke said the MPCV "will not function in that mode except as a backup." In the future, he said, "we will be adding to that capability with commercial crew spacecraft."