Orion No Backup for Commercial Crew, Says Bolden

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — NASA will not tap its Orion deep-space capsule as a backup system to fly astronauts to and from the international space station, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said June 18.

“It’s a bad, bad day when you have to send Orion to the international space station because it means either we’ve lost each of the [commercial] vehicles that was designed to do that through some accident, or they failed or something. So we don’t want to have to rely on Orion to do that,” Bolden told SpaceNews.

“It means American industry has failed and I don’t think any of us wants to see that,” he said.

NASA is working with three companies to develop commercial space taxis, with the aim of restoring U.S.-based crew flight services to the space station before the end of 2017. Since the space shuttles were retired in 2011, only Russian Soyuz capsules are flying crews to the orbital outpost, a service that currently costs NASA more than $60 million per person.

“We made a commitment to industry we would not compete with them,” said Bolden, who was at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to update reporters on plans to test fly Orion in December.

“If we had said, ‘We’re going to keep Orion as a backup,’ there were serious doubts as to whether industry would have made the investment at all in a commercial crew vehicle because their assumption was, ‘OK, if NASA is going to build a vehicle to go to low Earth orbit, what is NASA going to want to use?’ Naturally, they’re going to want to use their own vehicle,” Bolden said.

“So Orion, while it probably can — or will — be capable of going to the international space station, is not designed to do that, is not intended to do that,” he said.

Depending on budget, NASA is aiming to select at least two companies in late August or September to continue space taxi development and testing. 

“When we start flying humans on commercial spacecraft like in 2017, ideally I would like to have two [companies] at least who can provide transportation for our crew either today, or pretty soon after that,” Bolden said.