COLORADO SPRINGS –  A top NASA official said U.S President Barack Obama will announce plans to continue development of a stripped-down version of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle for use as a crew lifeboat on the international space station.

Obama, who is scheduled to deliver a space policy speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Station in Florida April 15, will also unveil plans to initiate development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle by 2015, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told reporters following remarks at the 26th National Space Symposium here April 13.

Orion — part of NASA’s five-year-old Constellation program designed to replace the retiring space shuttle with new rockets and spacecraft optimized for the Moon — was targeted for termination in Obama’s 2011 budget request. Since then lawmakers from both parties have sharply criticized Obama’s proposal to scrap Constellation in favor of investing in privately developed crew taxis capable of ferrying astronauts in low Earth orbit.

Garver said NASA’s Orion contract with Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems would be restructured to develop a variant of the space capsule that could be launched unmanned to station within the next couple of years to serve as a crew lifeboat. Garver said the plan would allow the agency to retain some of its multibillion-dollar investment in the program while reducing U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft currently used as an emergency crew escape capability on the space station.

“It allows you to keep the ability to go beyond low Earth orbit with humans,” Garver said, adding “the investment we made in Constellation along those lines is something that will benefit our program as well as allows us to rely on the Russians for a shorter period of time.”

Garver said NASA has no plans to continue development of Orion for exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

“We will ask them to focus Orion for the government purposes on our unique requirement of crew escape,” she said, adding that Lockheed Martin would be welcome to use the Orion capsule to bid on the agency’s $6 billion commercial crew program proposed in the president’s 2011 budget.

“That would be a company decision on bidding for commercial crew technology,” she said.

Garver said Obama also would announce a plan select a heavy-lift vehicle design by 2015, an element previously missing from the human spaceflight plan put forward in Obama’s 2011 budget. That omission has drawn fire from lawmakers concerned that a heavy-lift development program is needed to maintain the nation’s leadership in manned space exploration.

“We’re going to have a date specific to make a decision about the heavy lift vehicle in 2015,” she said, adding that the $3.1 billion Obama proposed to study advanced heavy lift propulsion capabilities over the next five years “is going to have us much further along down the path, and when we choose that vehicle we’ll be able to have a running start.”

Meanwhile, NASA will have five years to flesh out concepts for other technologies that could be developed to support human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit, including on-orbit propellant depots, inflatable habitats, and in space resource production.

“Things that allow you to size your architecture in a way that we’ll be able to go beyond [low Earth orbit] farther, faster, with a heavy lift that truly makes sense for the program,” she said. “And using more of the advanced technology that we’ve invested in the heavy lift program.”