NASA Decides On Human Deep Space Vehicle
Agency officials on Tuesday announced the manned spacecraft will be based on Orion, a crew capsule that was being developed under the now-canceled Constellation program.
The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), as the capsule is now called, will provide 316 cubic feet of habitable space, carry four astronauts for 21-day missions beyond low-Earth orbit and be able to land in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast. The capsule is also designed to be 10 times safer during ascent and entry than its predecessor the space shuttle, having safety upgrades such as a launch abort system.
Douglas Cooke, associate administrator for NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., said the agency did look at other alternatives, but “it made the most sense” to stick with the existing Orion contract based on progress and criteria.
NASA has spent more than $5 billion on the capsule. Lockheed Martin Corp., which was selected the prime contractor in 2006, will continue developing it.
Congress requires the MPCV and a Space Launch System (SLS) by 2016 for missions beyond low-Earth orbit.
The agency still needs to pin down the design approach on the SLS, a heavy-lift rocket that would carry the MPCV into space.
The capsule's ultimate cost and flight readiness are not known at this point because the agency has to work out the schedules in an integrated sense with the SLS, Cooke said.
Constellation, started under George W. Bush's presidency, was to establish a human colony on the moon by 2020 in preparation for missions to Mars. The program was developing the next generation of NASA spacecraft―Orion, the Ares 1 rocket to launch Orion and the Ares V rocket to launch cargo-- to succeed the space shuttle program. Elements of Apollo-and-shuttle-period technologies were used in Constellation.
President Barack Obama canceled Constellation last year in his fiscal 2011 budget request to Congress.
Based on an independent panel's review, the program was determined “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation” and “had drawn funding away from other NASA programs.”
Instead, the budget called for investments that would “significantly lower operation costs” and potentially take humans “farther and faster into space.” Central to that approach was NASA would partner with the private sector in a fundamentally new way: In the post-shuttle era, commercial vehicles would be the primary mode of crew transportation to and from the International Space Station, a laboratory in low-Earth orbit.
(Currently, NASA alternates between the shuttles and Russian Soyuz capsules to carry astronauts to the space station. The 30-year shuttle program will retire after one final mission in July.)
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, who announced the budget, said a strengthened commercial space industry would create not only thousands of jobs but also allow the agency to focus on developing other technologies, such as ones to access beyond low-Earth orbit. The proposal did not include how many jobs would be lost from canceling Constellation.
Obama expanded on his vision later that year in a speech at Kennedy Space Center and in his National Space Policy, stating goals to begin human missions to an asteroid by 2025 and to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s.
Members of Congress criticized the White House's cancel-Constellation-and-commercialize-NASA-more plans, largely due to mistrust of the private sector and concern about constituents' jobs. But political pressure to approve a direction before the beginning of fiscal 2011 (which runs October 2010 through September 2011), along with growing fears of no replacement for the shuttle (which would result in greater dependence on Russian Soyuz spacecraft), prompted lawmakers to finally pass the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. It was signed into law last October.
The legislation, which authorizes programs for fiscal 2011-13, was broadly consistent with Obama's agenda. It continued support for the development of commercial cargo and crew transportation capabilities to the space station, extended the life of the space station to at least 2020, and canceled Constellation.
But the authorization act also required NASA to develop two new spacecraft of its own―and use as many parts and assets related to the Constellation and shuttle programs as possible in developing them―by 2016: the MPCV and SLS. The spacecraft must be able to go beyond low-Earth orbit and also serve as backup transportation system to the space station if commercial- or foreign partner-supplied ones cannot.
For the first half of the fiscal year, a lack of funding and conflicting legislative language challenged the agency's ability to move forward.
The authorization act was only a spending blueprint; actual funds to carry out the activities required the passage of an appropriations bill. However, NASA, like other federal agencies, had been operating under a series of short-term continuing resolutions held at 2010 levels.
(Continuing resolutions are used to fund the government, and therefore avert a government slowdown, when regular appropriations bills have not been enacted. After the new Congress was sworn in at the beginning of the year, House Republicans and Senate Democrats continued to fight over a number of issues, and funding for the fiscal year―and threat of none―were used as leverage for a couple of months.)
Although the continuing resolutions prohibited NASA from beginning activities not funded the previous year, the agency was able to proceed on the MPCV and SLS because they are associated with Constellation. But a law that funded NASA in fiscal 2010 restricted the agency from terminating Constellation until subsequent legislation was approved to lift the requirement---and that language was carried over to the continuing resolutions. Due to the constraint, NASA was spending approximately $200 million monthly at least through January on canceled aspects of Constellation, and that figure was expected to climb if the restrictive language remained, according to a letter from NASA Inspector General Paul Martin to Congress at the time. A continuing resolution passed in April that funds the rest of the fiscal year finally relieved NASA of the conflicting language.
How NASA's been implementing the MPCV and SLS requirements has been met with flak from congressional members.
In a preliminary 22-page report to Congress in January, NASA said “it does not appear to be possible” the spacecraft would be ready by 2016. And Congress responded. Senate commerce committee members, including Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Bill Nelson (D-FL), and David Vitter (R-LA), said the development of both within the cost and schedule outlined “is not optional. It's the law.” Others, such as Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of the House science committee, said members will be paying “very close attention to NASA’s human spaceflight program.”
Obama's 2012 budget request released in February intensified matters. It allocated more funds to commercial crew development and less funds to the MPCV and SLS than what Congress had agreed to in the authorization act.
“We're exasperated that NASA is not listening to our message,” Hall said at a hearing in March. He, along with many members, asked Bolden to explain why the budget request “seeks to reverse congressional priorities.”
The NASA administrator told them he does think the budget reflects Congress' guidance, but tough choices were also involved in all programs.
“We have made the decision that the safety of the crew is number one priority. The quickest, most efficient and safest way for me to get them there is through relying on commercial entities to handle access to low-Earth orbit and then my focus is on safety for crews that are going beyond low-Earth orbit,” Bolden said before the committee. “The International Space Station is the anchor for all future exploration. That's our moon right now.”
(Bolden, a former astronaut, lost friends in both the shuttle Challenger and Columbia accidents. His support for commercial space efforts has been well known in the industry and among other observers.)
At the hearing, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was one of the larger backers of the commercial industry. The agency should “maximize the benefit that the private sector provides,” he said.
Congress has yet to approve a fiscal 2012 budget.
NASA Authorization Act of 2010
FY 2012: MPCV $1.4 billion
SLS $2.65 billion
Total $4.05 billion
Obama's 2012 budget request
FY2012: MPCV $1.0 billion
SLS $1.8 billion
Total $2.8 billion
→ Budget request cut $850 million from what authorization act approved for SLS in FY2012.
→ Budget request cut $400 million from what authorization act approved for MPCV in FY2012.
NASA Authorization Act of 2010
FY 2012: Commercial Crew $500 million
Obama's 2012 budget request
FY2012: Commercial Crew $850 million
→ Budget request added $350 million for commercial crew in FY2012 than what authorization act approved.
Seven months after the authorization act was signed into law, contention has continued. Last week, the Senate commerce committee sent another letter to Bolden, stating that because of “NASA's current inaction and indecision in implementing this transition,” the committee is “requesting bi-monthly briefings and detailed information documenting what steps NASA is taking to comply with the law. The first briefing should take place during the week of May 30, 2011. ”
"We are committed to human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and look forward to developing the next generation of systems to take us there," Bolden said in a statement Tuesday announcing the Orion-based MPCV.
Asked why it took NASA until this week to officially announce continuing with Orion, Cooke said the agency was exploring other approaches, and during that process, was also operating under constraints of the continuing resolutions.
The MPCV can be used as a backup vehicle to the space station. The agency is looking at whether the capsule can also be entirely reusable.
The announcement came on the eve of the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's proposal to Congress to land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s.