A View from Brittany Sauser

NASA Names Spacecraft for Deep Space Missions

Amid uncertainty over its future, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle gives NASA some direction.

  • May 24, 2011

Today, NASA officially named the vehicle that could someday take its astronauts back the moon, as well as to Mars and asteroids. The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) bears a strong resemblance to Apollo spacecraft and is based on the designs originally planned for the Orion crew exploration vehicle, which was being built to carry humans beyond low Earth orbit under the now-canceled Constellation program.

MPCV being tested and assembled at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Colorado. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The new vehicle is being developed by Lockheed Martin, and it will carry four astronauts on missions lasting up to 21 days. It will have a pressurized volume of 690 cubic feet, with 316 cubic feet of habitable space, and is designed to be 10 times safer during ascent and entry than its predecessor, the space shuttle. (The space shuttles will retire this year, with the last launch currently planned for July.)

Thus far, NASA has invested over $5 billion in the design of MPCV, which “is the Orion-based concept” that the agency contracted Lockheed Martin to build for moon missions in 2006, said Douglas Cooke, associate administrator for the agency’s exploration systems mission directorate in today’s teleconference. He added that the agency studied alternative system designs and concepts and found that the “MPCV design approach is the best for beyond low Earth orbit.”

Cooke also said that for longer missions, to destinations like Mars, the new spacecraft will have to rendezvous with another, larger module that can support humans. A timeline for the spacecraft’s development has not been set, but Cooke said the agency won’t have crew on board “until sometime after 2016.” NASA must first decide on a heavy-lift rocket design that can carry the crew vehicle into orbit; an announcement on this is expected in late June.

While NASA focuses on deep space exploration, it is leaving low Earth orbit and transportation to the International Space Station to its commercial industry partners. It recently awarded $269 million to four commercial companies to build spacecraft to carry humans to orbit. Without this partnership, NASA would have to rely on Russia’s help in ferrying its astronauts to the space station.

Last year, the Obama administration gave NASA a task: send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by the mid-2030s. But since then there has been no clear plan or decision on how the agency should send astronauts into deep space, and a lot of controversy over NASA’s next heavy lift vehicle. Adding more uncertainty to NASA’s future in human spaceflight, the leading commercial space company, SpaceX announced its plans for its own heavy lift rocket. Today’s announcement is a step towards NASA redefining its role.

A cutaway view of the MPCV. Credit: NASA

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