The first Orion spacecraft to carry a crew may not launch until April 2023, more than 18 months later than previously planned. Credit: ESA/D. Ducros

WASHINGTON — Aerojet Rocketdyne will begin building crucial launch-abort system components for the Orion deep-space capsule that NASA plans to launch uncrewed to lunar orbit in 2018, the Sacramento, California, company said in an Oct. 9 press release.

Aerojet Rocketdyne completed the critical design review — the final milestone in NASA program management before hardware construction begins — for both the Orion jettison motor and reaction control systems.

The solid-fueled jettison motor, mounted on top of Orion, would yank the spacecraft away from its Space Launch System carrier rocket if something goes wrong on ascent. The liquid-fueled reaction control system — maneuvering jets on the sides of the capsule — would allow Orion to steer itself after peeling away from the rocket after an abort.

Aerojet Rocketdyne will deliver the hardware to Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver “next year,” according to the press release.

Orion will not carry a crew in 2018, when the capsule is scheduled to fly for the first time atop NASA’s Space Launch System heavy lifter. The craft is slated to carry astronauts for the first time in the early 2020s. NASA has not given up on a 2021 crewed launch, but the agency did determine this year that Orion more likely will not be ready to fly people until 2023.

A stripped-down Orion launched on a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket in December 2014 on an Earth orbit and re-entry test designed primarily to determine if the craft’s heat shield could protect crews from the extreme temperatures reached upon entering Earth’s atmosphere at near-orbital speed.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.