WASHINGTON — NASA officials are quietly assessing whether to hold a new competition to build an emergency lifeboat for international space station crews, a move that would scuttle current plans to use the Lockheed Martin-designed Orion capsule for that purpose under an existing contract that would only have to be modified, NASA and congressional sources said.

“Continuing on the current contract is the option being assessed, but there is forward work to verify that it is contractually appropriate and the best approach for the emergency return module acquisition,” Orion program executive Thomas Rathjen said in a May 27 e-mail to Space News.

The White House in February unveiled a NASA 2011 budget proposal featuring plans to cancel the Constellation program, a 5-year-old effort to replace the retiring space shuttle with new rockets and spacecraft that would transport crews to the space station and eventually to the Moon. That hardware includes the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, being developed by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver.

In an April 15 speech, however, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a modified plan retaining a slimmed-down version of Orion that could serve as a rescue vehicle for astronauts inhabiting the space station. Since then, NASA officials have scrambled to shoehorn Orion into the administration’s plan to scrap Constellation by the end of the year — which requires congressional approval — to make way for a new strategic direction in human space exploration that would bypass the Moon.

During a House Science and Technology Committee hearing May 26, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the agency’s cost estimate for developing the Orion lifeboat is still being refined, but that it could run in the neighborhood of $4.5 billion over five years. Privately, NASA and congressional sources say Bolden’s estimate is optimistic, and that the likely cost is somewhere between $5 billion and $7 billion, a range that the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), cited during the hearing.

“I understand that NASA’s preliminary estimates indicate that it could cost $5 billion to $7 billion to develop such a vehicle, and that number doesn’t include the annual cost to launch it and rotate the vehicles once it is operational,” Gordon said in opening remarks.


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Regardless of the true cost, funding the Orion lifeboat could prove challenging.

During the hearing, Bolden said NASA intends to pay for the stripped-down capsule using funds allocated for developing a commercial astronaut taxi service — a key component of the president’s plan — and for exploration-related technology development. Moments after the hearing, however, NASA spokeswoman Ashley Edwards told Space News the money for Orion would not come from the $6 billion NASA expects to spend on commercial crew initiatives over the next five years.

“Any human spaceflight program money may be made available,” Edwards said, adding that funds for the international space station and space shuttle could be a source. “But not commercial,” she emphasized.

Rathjen said Orion would likely continue as an independent program once Constellation is officially terminated.

“If the President’s proposal is accepted by Congress, then there really won’t be a Constellation Program, and the Orion emergency return module will likely be a stand-alone program/project,” Rathjen said in the e-mail. “However, until Congress acts on the President’s proposal, we cannot say for sure how the Orion work will be structured organizationally.”

One possibility is to fold some of the research and development associated with the Orion lifeboat effort into NASA’s flagship-technology demonstration program, a $7.8 billion pot of money intended in part to fund large in-space demonstrations of technologies that could support future manned space exploration. Three of four such missions proposed so far could require an unmanned crew capsule to demonstrate autonomous rendezvous and docking (AR&D) capabilities, NASA’s Michael Conley, who is leading the flagship-technology demonstration study team, said during a May 25 industry day event in Galveston, Texas.

“Because of the Orion [crew rescue vehicle] addition, we’re looking at whether to demonstrate that technology there,” Conley said, adding that the missions in question include advanced in-space propulsion, in-space propellant storage and transfer, and delivery of inflatable structures for use aboard the space station.

“There’s a lot of trade to go on through the next months to work that out and get it integrated with the return vehicle,” he said.

Rathjen said that while he hopes to identify opportunities for the Orion lifeboat within the proposed flagship demonstration program, it is too soon to say whether the agency will proceed on that course.

“It is very likely that NASA will pursue synergies between the Orion emergency return module’s AR&D needs and the plans for AR&D work in the Flagship Technology Program,” Rathjen said. “But details on how that might be executed have not been worked out.”