This story was updated at 4:46 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — NASA formally recommitted to the once-marked-for-cancellation Orion crew capsule May 24, announcing the Lockheed Martin-led project will serve as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) that Congress has ordered the agency to build.

Orion — the multibillion-dollar spaceship that served along with the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle as the cornerstone of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s Moon-focused Constellation program — was targeted for cancellation in the budget President Barack Obama sent Congress in February 2010. Two months later, Orion won a partial reprieve when Obama announced in Florida that a slimmed-down Orion would serve as a crew lifeboat at the international space station. Congress went a step further, passing legislation last fall that directs NASA to build an MPCV that will “continue to advance development of the human safety features, designs, and other systems in the Orion project.”

When Obama signed the 2010 NASA Authorization Act into law, it was widely accepted as a foregone conclusion that Lockheed Martin’s development of the Orion capsule would continue under the MPCV name.

Doug Cooke, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems, told reporters during a May 24 teleconference that the agency spent the last seven months ensuring the Orion design was the best choice for the MPCV and then working with the agency’s contracting experts “to make sure the MPCV was in scope of the Orion contract.”

Among the MPCV alternatives NASA considered before deciding to stick with the basic Orion design, Cooke said, were vehicles that would launch unmanned and rely on commercial vehicles to bring up the crew and return them to Earth. NASA also looked at some fairly major changes to Orion, including substituting a composite crew cabin for the capsule’s aluminum structure and incorporating a different kind of launch abort system.

But in the end, Cooke said, “it made the most sense to stick with” the existing Orion design.

“It’s well down the road, it answers the requirements, and represents a significant investment … at this point,” he said.

Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems, in a May 24 statement, said NASA’s designation of Orion as the MPCV “provides our nation with a sound solution for deep space mission capability within currently proposed budgets.”

As it stands, Lockheed Martin will develop MPCV under the $8.15 billion Orion contract it was awarded in August 2006.

That contract called for wrapping up Orion development in 2013 for less than $4 billion before moving into a production phase to support regular flights to the international space station and initial trips to the Moon.

Cooke said he does not yet know how much more the agency expects to spend before the MPCV conducts its first crewed flight, or when that flight would occur. NASA has spent approximately $5 billion on Orion to date, he said.

“We are still working on our integrated architecture — that includes the Space Launch System along with ground systems and other supporting projects — in order to put together an integrated cost and schedule,” he said. “So at this point we don’t have a specific date, although we are working diligently to understand earliest possible test dates within the approach that we are working to lay out.”

Part of NASA’s challenge is that Congress has directed it to simultaneously develop the MPCV and its launcher, the heavy-lift Space Launch System. At the same time, NASA is fostering development of commercial vehicles it is counting on to transport astronauts to and from the space station. The White House, meanwhile, has told NASA not to expect a budget increase anytime soon.

While NASA says Lockheed can develop the MPCV under the existing Orion contract, the agency acknowledges that the contract’s financial terms and programmatic milestones will change.

“There will be modifications to implement the planned incremental development approach that is necessary to be affordable within the anticipated budgets. And these modifications will require negotiation,” NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said in a May 25 email response to Space News questions. “But these modifications are about the implementation schedule for phasing in capabilities and conducting test flights, not about changes to the basic requirements for the end-stage beyond-[low Earth orbit] vehicle.”

Cooke said the MPCV will carry four astronauts for 21-day missions and be able to land in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast. The spacecraft will weigh 23 tons and have a pressurized volume of 19.5 cubic meters, with nearly 9 cubic meters of habitable space.

U.S. lawmakers who have lambasted NASA for not following congressional direction on the MPCV and Space Launch System were quick to express their support for NASA’s decision to recommit to Orion.

“This is a good thing,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who chairs the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, said in a May 24 statement. “It shows real progress towards the goal of exploring deep space and eventually getting to Mars.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) also expressed her support for the decision, but pressed NASA to quickly finalize and announce its chosen heavy-lift launch vehicle configuration.

Cooke said NASA expects to announce its Space Launch System decision in the weeks ahead.



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Brian Berger is editor in chief of and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...