WASHINGTON — NASA wants to stage an unmanned test flight of its next-generation deep-space capsule, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, in 2014, three years before its intended carrier rocket — the congressionally mandated Space Launch System — is scheduled to debut.

The so-called Exploration Flight Test would launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard an unspecified rocket. The Lockheed Martin-built capsule, also known as Orion, would orbit the Earth twice and re-enter the atmosphere at speeds approaching those that would occur during a return from deep space, NASA said in a Nov. 8 press release. The capsule will make a water landing.

“The entry part of the test will produce data needed to develop a spacecraft capable of surviving speeds greater than 20,000 mph [32,000 kilometers per hour] and safely return astronauts from beyond Earth orbit,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in the release. “This test is very important to the detailed design process in terms of the data we expect to receive.”

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver is building Orion under a contract awarded in 2007 under the now-defunct Constellation program, which was intended to transport crews to and from the international space station and later to the surface of the Moon. U.S. President Barack Obama canceled Constellation, but Congress directed NASA to continue with Orion and to develop the Space Launch System.

NASA said it will have to modify Lockheed Martin’s Orion development contract to accommodate the test flight. The agency did not say what launch vehicle would be used, but the likeliest candidate is United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 Heavy, which currently is the largest rocket in the U.S. inventory.

Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance confirmed in November 2010 that they were in negotiations to provide a Delta 4 Heavy for an Orion test flight that at the time did not have the official backing of the U.S. space agency. Denver-based United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, builds the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, which serve as the U.S. government’s primary means of access to space.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directed NASA to use salvageable elements of the Constellation and space shuttle programs to design the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and a companion heavy-lift rocket capable of supporting exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit. The agency announced its strategy for building the crew capsule in May, but did not commit to building the Space Launch System until September.

Boeing Space Exploration of Houston, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif., and ATK Aerospace Systems of Magna, Utah, currently are the main contractors on the Space Launch System, which will leverage propulsion systems from the space shuttle and Apollo programs. The first flight is slated for 2017.


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.