Few Details About Path Forward on Orion in NASA Press Conference

Few Details About Path Forward on Orion in NASA Press Conference

NASA’s media teleconference today about its decision on the design of the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle for sending astronauts to deep space destinations in the future provided little new information.

Doug Cooke, NASA’s Associate Administration for Exploration, said that the Orion spacecraft has been deemed the best approach to building a spacecraft for human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) and there are no major changes to the contract with Lockheed Martin. Orion was originally designed for President George W. Bush’s Constellation program and work has been underway since 2006. He said that NASA had spent about $5 billion on Orion so far, but did not know how much more the program will cost or how much an individual Orion spacecraft will cost. He could provide no details on the schedule for test flights or flights with crews aboard other than agreeing with a questioner that it probably would be after 2016, the date specified in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.

When asked why it had taken the agency so many months to make this decision to essentially continuing doing what it has been doing, Cooke said that NASA had looked at alternatives and the process took place under funding constraints resulting from the delay in NASA obtaining its FY2011 appropriations. The studies of alternatives, such as whether to use composites for the pressure vessel or a different type of abort system, were done internally, he said.

The Orion spacecraft will land in the ocean, and NASA continues to look at the pros and cons of making the entire vehicle or some of its systems reusable considering the deleterious impact of salt water on them.

Cooke did clarify that the idea of a “lifeboat” version of Orion that was announced by President Obama during his April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center is not part of this program. That lifeboat function is associated with crews aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and this vehicle is being designed for deep space missions, he said, adding that it could be used as a backup to commercial systems for transport to or from LEO, but it would be an inefficient use of the system. Russia’s Soyuz serves as the lifeboat now, he said, and commercial vehicles will provide additional lifeboat capability in the future.

Emphasizing that decisions have yet to be made on the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLLV) that presumably would launch Orion, Cooke said that he could not provide schedule information because the schedule had to be determined in an integrated manner within available budgets. “Everyone’s interested in schedules, and so are we,” he said, but the agency is not at a point to determine them yet.

The audio of the press conference can be heard by calling 866-452-2114, or 203-369-1218 for international callers, one hour after it ended (which would be approximatelly 5:15 pm EDT). It will be available until June 7.

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