Editorial: Orion/MPCV is Just Part of the Equation

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NASA’s announcement May 24 that the Orion capsule under development since 2006 by Lockheed Martin will serve as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) mandated by Congress last year wasn’t exactly Earth-shattering news. That Orion would continue under the new name has been a foregone conclusion dating as far back as October, when U.S. President Barack Obama signed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. The law directs the agency to develop a deep space vehicle and heavy-lift rocket taking advantage of space shuttle infrastructure and work done under the now-defunct Constellation program, whose long-term aim was to return U.S. astronauts to the Moon sometime next decade.

Though obviously well received by Lockheed Martin and in various corners of Capitol Hill, the Orion/MPCV announcement was little more than a formality that still leaves many questions unanswered. NASA remains mum, for example, about Orion’s projected cost, schedule and developmental milestones.

Agency officials have indicated that the pacing item for Orion development is the Space Launch System, the heavy-lift rocket ordered up by Congress for astronaut missions to deep space destinations. The law calls for the heavy-lifter and capsule to be ready by 2016, but NASA officials have argued that the schedule is unrealistic, particularly since the legislation authorizes higher budgets than the agency is likely to see over the next two years.

NASA has yet to delineate a plan for fulfilling the Space Launch System requirement, although the specifications written by Congress would appear to point to a vehicle resembling the Ares 5 heavy-lifter designed under Constellation. That would mean significant roles for the contractors involved in Ares 1, the now-canceled rocket that originally was expected to launch Orion while serving as the developmental foundation for the more powerful Ares 5. Those contractors are Alliant Techsystems, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

But when the Space Launch System might begin flying is anybody’s guess; thus the same effectively holds true for Orion/MPCV.|When Lockheed Martin won the Orion contract five years ago, the program was expected to cost $3.9 billion through 2013, the target year for completing the capsule’s initial development. NASA officials have acknowledged that some $5 billion has been spent on Orion development to date and that slowing work on the program to synchronize its schedule with that of the Space Launch System likely will drive up its cost further.

The other burning question is exactly how NASA will use Orion/MPCV and the Space Launch System, especially since, under President Obama’s current plan, astronaut transport to and from the international space station will be provided by one or more of several commercial systems now under development. Until NASA is able to provide specifics regarding the cost, schedule and mission of not only Orion but also the Space Launch System — and Congress and the White House agree on a realistic plan to pay for this without gutting the rest of the civil space program — it is premature to declare any victories for the U.S. human spaceflight program.