Orion Will Slow Down For Heavy-lift Launcher

Orion Will Slow Down For Heavy-lift Launcher

May 25, 2011

By Frank Morring, Jr.
NASA will continue its contract with Lockheed Martin for development of the George W. Bush-era Orion crew exploration vehicle, rechristened the Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) by Congress, but it will stretch out the contract while it figures out how to build a heavy-lift “Space Launch System” (SLS) to carry it beyond low Earth orbit.

The U.S. space agency has spent about $5 billion on Orion since it was started as the shuttle follow-on under the Constellation program. Now that it is being “phased” with the SLS, managers don’t know yet what it will cost to complete the development.

“The cost on it is going to depend on how long it takes to phase out these things, to some degree,” NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Doug Cooke told reporters May 24 in announcing the decision by Administrator Charles Bolden to continue building Orion under its existing contract.

Lockheed Martin already is ground-testing its first Orion at its Denver facility, and plans to refurbish that article for a later test flight in a schedule that could lead to piloted operations as early as 2016.

However, Cooke says it will be “early summer” before NASA makes its final choice on the SLV design, and that will be the pacing item in building the government-owned transportation system Congress ordered last year to take astronauts into deep space. To begin operations in 2016, Lockheed Martin needs to test its first unoccupied Orion in 2013, and Cooke says NASA has not picked a launch vehicle for that or any subsequent test flights of the capsule-shaped vehicle.

“We basically have to look at it in an integrated approach, along with the launch vehicle development,” he says. “There are spikes in development at times, so you want to try to make those happen at the right times and the most optimum sense, so it might slow things down a little bit on one versus another, depending on how things work out.”

The pace of SLV development will depend on how much heritage hardware is used, he says.

The agency’s tentative design reference mission for the SLV uses space shuttle main engines and other existing components to speed development, and the final design may reuse even more technology, but Bolden has placed himself at loggerheads with Congress by saying NASA can’t meet its 2016 deadline for flying SLS.

The lag will make it even more important for NASA to begin using commercial cargo and crew vehicles to support the International Space Station.

Cooke says Orion will continue to have a “backup” role as station support, but it won’t be the most efficient way to get there when used with the heavy-lifter, even after it is ready to fly.

Cooke says NASA considered using commercial vehicles to get exploration crews to low Earth orbit for transfer to vehicles going deeper into space, and ultimately decided to stay with Orion.

The MPCV contract also will use new approaches to cost-cutting, he says, and make the “most efficient use of the NASA and contractor workforce.”

As envisioned in Bolden’s decision, the Orion-based MPCV will carry four crew for as long as 21 days in 316 cubic ft. of habitable space, using a solid-fuel escape tower to achieve 10 times the safety of the space shuttle.

Orion photo: Jefferson Morris

Photo credit: Jefferson Morris

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