NASA astronauts to fly Orion spacecraft into deep space

Space agency bases new spacecraft on designs for planned moon craft

NASA announced Tuesday its plan to build a spacecraft that will fly astronauts into deep space, going as far as near asteroids and even Mars.

The new spacecraft, called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, will be based on an earlier concept for the Orion vehicle, a spacecraft originally intended to ferry astronauts to the moon, the space agency announced during a press conference. The new spacecraft, which will be built by Lockheed Martin Corp., will be designed to carry four astronauts on 21-day missions.

Douglas Cooke, NASA's associate administrator for exploration, said the agency plans to send the deep space vehicle to near asteroids and then to Mars.

"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. "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."

Designed to be 10 times safer during liftoff and re-entry than its NASA predecessor, the space shuttle, the new spacecraft will have 316 cubic feet of habitable space. It also is expected to be able to land in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.

Though Orion was born of a canceled moon mission, it seems to have several lives still to live.

Orion was first conceived as part of NASA's Constellation program, which was geared to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. However, last year the Obama administration scrapped the over-budget and behind-schedule Constellation program, deciding instead to focus on sending astronauts to Mars and further into the solar system.

The Obama administration wants to turn NASA's attention to developing new engines, in-space fuel depots and robots that can venture out into space.

In March, Lockheed Martin announced that it was developing a version of the Orion crew capsule for use as an emergency escape craft for astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Once NASA retires the last of the space shuttle fleet this year, Orion may take on an important role in giving NASA the ability to safely evacuate astronauts from the space station.

Initially designed to ferry astronauts to the moon, Orion will be transformed into a vehicle that will carry astronauts into deep space, the area outside the Earth's orbit.

"We made this choice based on progress that's already been made," Cooke said. "We looked at alternatives to some system designs that we're seeing in various proposals, looking for any advantages to this design. And we confirmed that the design and approach we've got is really the best."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

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