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May 25, 2011

NASA Resurrects Orion Capsule for Deep Space Exploration

By Chris DiMarco, TMCnet Web Editor

The Orion moon capsule has had a short and uncertain path since its development in early 2005. Originally proposed by the Bush administration as a lunar-lander, the Orion craft was repurposed as an escape pod for the international space station when the Constellation program was ended in 2010 due to budgetary concerns. But news today is taking the Orion Capsule from a glorified lifeboat to a interplanetary exploration vessel once again as NASA unveils plans to make it an integral part of its next manned deep space mission.

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When the Constellation program was cut by the Obama Whitehouse, it was proposed that the United States take a two prong approach to space exploration. The US would rely on the private industry to handle low earth orbit launches and exploration, while NASA would focus on crafts and missions that would achieve the next milestone in space travel. Unfortunately until now the plan lacked a time table and has been banned publically as a cop out to a much needed overhaul in NASA space exploration strategy.

The Orion capsule was resurrected as a possibility for exploration because of its original design as a long term space travel vessel. As of yet it is the most successful design produced by engineers. 

Douglas Cooke, associate administrator of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, told reporters "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 (News - Alert), the craft consists of a modular capsule that can house four astronauts for around 21-days. Life support systems would be powered by solar arrays once the craft has breached the Earth’s atmosphere. For longer trips, the modular craft could be attached to additional long term living quarters which would contain supplies essential to interplanetary travel.

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."

Testing of the newly revived exploration program is not anticipated until 2016. Though the proposed plan will leave a six year gap in US space exploration starting with the end of the Shuttle program , it shows that NASA is at least trying to find direction for its recently meandering attempts to takes us back into space.


Chris DiMarco is a Web Editor for TMCnet. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University. Prior to joining TMC (News - Alert) Chris worked with e-commerce provider Suresource as a contact center representative and development analyst. To read more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefanie Mosca