WASHINGTON — The maiden flight of Orion, the deep-space vessel NASA is building for future crewed missions beyond Earth orbit, was bumped to December from late September to accommodate military satellite launches, the agency said.

“The Air Force came to us this month asking us to move [the Orion launch] to December to help alleviate a busy manifest, and we agreed,” NASA spokeswoman Rachel Kraft said in a March 17 email. NASA disclosed the schedule change in a March 14 mission update.

The missions that bumped Orion to December are Air Force Space Command-4 and GPS 2F-6, according to a spokeswoman for government launch services provider United Launch Alliance of Denver. Like Orion, both of these Air Force missions are scheduled to launch on Delta 4 rockets from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. 

The schedule change “was formalized in a recent session of the multi-agency forum that reviews and approves the launch schedules for near term launches,” ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said March 18 via email.

Rye said the GPS 2F-6 launch is scheduled for May, followed by the Air Force Space Command-4 launch in July.

Air Force Space Command-4 will carry a recently declassified space surveillance payload known as the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, Andy Roake, a spokesman for Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., wrote in a March 20 email. The mission will also be testing out an EELV Secondary Payload Adapter, which allows ULA’s Delta 4 to carry a ride-along payload. The piggyback payload on Air Force Space Command-4 will be the Automated Navigation and Guidance Experiment for Local Space. Both satellites were built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. 

Orion’s first flight, officially known as Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1, will test critical systems including the craft’s heat shield and parachutes. Other major systems, including life support and solar arrays, will not be ready for the planned December test.

Moving Orion’s first test flight to December is not expected to delay the craft’s first flight aboard its intended carrier rocket, the heavy-lift Space Launch System NASA is building, Kraft said.

That uncrewed mission is still scheduled for late 2017, and personnel working on EFT-1’s Orion capsule are aiming to finish work on that spacecraft by late September or early October so they can begin building the Orion for the maiden SLS mission, Kraft said.  

Both the Space Launch System and Orion are being built with contracts and hardware left over from the space shuttle program, which ended in July 2011, and Constellation, which was canceled in 2010 by the Obama administration.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver is building Orion under an $11.76 billion prime contract awarded in 2006 for Constellation. Lockheed’s contract runs through 2020, and NASA had spent $7.15 billion on it through March 11, Kraft wrote in an email. The Orion prime contract was originally scheduled to run out in 2014, but NASA in late February extended the agreement for another six years, at a cost of $4.55 billion. The extension covers development work required to produce the first crew-capable Orion spacecraft, which is notionally set to be sent to a captured asteroid by 2025.

Boeing Space Exploration of Houston is building the Space Launch System’s core and upper stages, and its avionics suite.  

NASA is mulling the feasibility of sending astronauts to an asteroid with Orion and the Space Launch System as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission concept it has been studying for the past year. In this mission, which NASA has not committed to, astronauts would visit an asteroid redirected to lunar space by a new robotic spacecraft that would launch sometime before the end of this decade.

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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...