U.S. President Obama at Kennedy Space Center in April 2010. Credit: NASA

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — U.S. President Barack Obama’s revised space plan keeps Lockheed Martin working on a lifeboat version of a NASA crew capsule previously slated for cancellation, potentially positioning the craft to fly astronauts to the international space station and possibly beyond Earth orbit on technology demonstration jaunts the president envisions happening in the early 2020s.

Between pledging to choose a heavy-lift rocket design by 2015 and directing NASA and Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems to produce a stripped-down version of the Orion crew capsule that would launch unmanned to the space station by around 2013 to carry astronauts home in an emergency, the White House hopes to address some of the chief complaints about the plan it unveiled in February to abandon Orion along with the rest of NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program.

“There are … those who criticized our decision to end parts of Constellation as one that will hinder space exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” Obama said in a much-anticipated April 15 speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “It’s precisely by investing in groundbreaking research and innovative companies that we will have the potential to rapidly transform our capabilities, even as we build on the important work already completed through projects like Orion, for future missions. And unlike the previous program, we are setting a course with specific and achievable milestones.”

But while Obama said the effort to build a smaller Orion would form the “technological foundation for advanced spacecraft to be used in future deep space missions,” he offered few details beyond pledging to commit NASA to undertake “a set of crewed flights” in the early 2020s to “test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit.”

Whether the White House envisions that job ultimately falling to a variant of Orion or some other vehicle was not clear.

“It’s crew escape today, and preserving a foundation for the future in the future,” White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro said April 15, adding that the nearly $6 billion Obama is proposing to help foster development of commercial space taxis over the next five years would not be used to fund such a capability. “It’s not being funded to compete with commercial,” Shapiro said.

A senior NASA official said Obama’s plan could mesh well with a recent Lockheed Martin proposal to restructure the Orion contract as an incremental development program in order to get by with less money in the near term.

“We see significant potential merit to the Lockheed Martin proposal to develop a Block 0 version of Orion, because it offers the possibility of dealing with a large 2010 funding shortfall without widening the U.S. human spaceflight gap following the cancellation of the space shuttle,” a senior NASA official said April 13.

John Stevens, director of strategic development for Lockheed Martin’s human spaceflight business, said under the proposed restructuring, the company would develop variants of the crew capsule in a series of increments beginning with Block 0, which would include flight tests of a stripped-down capsule in 2013 and 2014. Block 1 would follow in 2015 and 2016 with crewed demonstration flights to the space station and potentially an Apollo 8-style mission to orbit the Moon. Block 2, Stevens said, would be able to conduct longer-duration missions well beyond low Earth orbit starting in 2017 and 2018.

“The notion here is that initially you spend days in orbit and then you spend weeks in orbit and you extend that to months in orbit,” Stevens told Space News April 12. “We’re actually looking at Block 2 to go on near-Earth object missions or a mission to L2 [the second Lagrange point] … that would be six months’ duration. We can actually handle those in 2017 or 2018.”

Under the timeline Obama outlined in his speech at Kennedy, NASA would not send astronauts to a relatively close-in asteroid — often referred to as a near-Earth object — until around 2025.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said April 13 that while Orion’s focus for now is crew escape, the capsule could eventually play a role in NASA’s exploration plans.

“Ultimately beyond low Earth orbit, absolutely, and as decisions are made on heavy [lift] then you have that capability,” she said. “But not immediately, because within the budget we’re focused on the technology development and so forth for heavy-lift as well as the crew transportation for commercial.”

Rather than canceling the Orion contract Lockheed Martin won in 2006, Garver said NASA would modify it to meet the government’s new requirement for a crew-escape variant, a plan that could save the agency from having to pay the company hundreds of millions of dollars in termination fees.

Garver said it would be up to Lockheed Martin to decide whether to compete for NASA commercial crew development funding with a variant of the Orion design.

Having worked on Orion for more than four years now, Lockheed Martin would seem well positioned for that work, but Stevens said Lockheed Martin might be reluctant to bid, especially if NASA intends to use a fixed-price contracting vehicle that is typical of commercial procurements. He said such an arrangement could put a large, experienced aerospace contractor like Lockheed Martin at a competitive disadvantage against a relatively new entrepreneurial outfit that might not have a firm grasp of what it might cost to safely launch astronauts to the space station.

John Gedmark, director of the Washington-based Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said the plan to use Orion for crew escape could ease requirements for would-be commercial crew providers such as Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which is developing the Falcon 9 medium-lift launcher and Dragon capsule for both cargo and crew missions to and from the space station.

“Commercial crew vehicles can now be a simpler, more straightforward development effort and could potentially be much faster at closing the gap” in U.S. human spaceflight capability that will follow the space shuttle’s upcoming retirement, Gedmark said April 14. “If NASA separates the lifeboat capability from the crew taxi capabilities, it will reduce some of the requirements and technical complexity on commercial crew vehicles.”

But Obama’s revised plan invited fresh complaints that restructuring the Orion contract is not a wise investment of taxpayer funds.

“Developing an Orion-based lifeboat-only is a costly, unnecessary capability that would do nothing to reduce our dependence on the Russian Soyuz,” a congressional aide said April 14. “Soyuz is still required to ferry crews to the station, where it remains docked until the crews are ready to return even in an emergency situation. An unmanned Orion does not contribute to advancing the goal of exploration beyond low Earth orbit, and is a wasteful use of resources at a time when NASA has a very constrained budget.”