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May 25, 2011

NASA Continues Work on "New" Crew Capsule - with $5 Billion Invested

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

NASA has reaffirmed its path to develop a new crew vehicle for deep space missions, but how new is subject to question. The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is basically the Orion capsule started in 2006 as a part of the Constellation space flight program started in the Bush administration. A NASA official said there's been no modification of contract between the original Orion and the current MPCV.

During a conference call on May 24, Douglas Cooke, associate administrator for NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, said the MPCV "is Orion." Lockheed Martin (News - Alert) remains the primary contractor for the capsule, which is required to support four astronauts for 28 days and to have a heat shield capable of withstanding high-speed reentry from lunar and Mars missions before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

Cooke said NASA had been working with Lockheed Martin on "creative ways" to keep costs down, but a review of alternatives in system design has resulted in no fundamental changes in technology .   Commercial crew transport options being developed by Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX (News - Alert) are incorporating composites and pusher-style launch abort systems -- options which aren't going to be incorporated into Orion.

However, the MPCV is a long way from a first flight. NASA needs to finalize and build a space launch system (SLS), and integrate the two. Cooke said the agency was still shooting for "early summer" to announce a path for launcher development.

SLS represents the long pole in the tent for the first flight of Orion and Cooke indicated Orion development could be paced (i.e., slowed) to match launcher progress in order to best manage the money NASA has to work with for building the new system.

Already NASA has invested $5 billion dollars in the development of the MPCV and the agency seems to be determined to stick a concept of direct launching it on missions rather than parking a larger space-only vehicle in low earth orbit (LEO) and delivering crew via commercial launch services before setting off on missions.

Instead, the MPCV will be launched with a larger habitation/supply model for long endurance trips of six months or longer to asteroids or the moons of Mars.

Cooke also couldn't give a figure on how much it would cost to build an MPCV. "We don't have recurring costs at this point," he said. "It depends on the exact mission we're flying in terms of what systems you'll use."   Reuse of either the full-up MPCV or system components from different missions is being examined, but since the craft "does land in water" there are likely to be concerns with the effects of salt water corrosion.

Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Stefanie Mosca

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