Video: NASA announces shuttle's successor

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updated 5/26/2011 10:39:43 PM ET 2011-05-27T02:39:43

NASA on Tuesday announced a plan to develop a new deep-space vehicle, one based on an earlier capsule concept, in order to send astronauts on expeditions to an asteroid and then on to Mars.

The spaceship, known as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV, will be based on designs originally planned for the Orion spacecraft, NASA officials announced Tuesday. Orion was part of NASA's now-canceled Constellation program, which aimed to return astronauts to the moon by the 2020s. [Photos: NASA's MPCV for Deep Space Flights]

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President Barack Obama shut down the Constellation program last year, tasking NASA instead with sending people to an asteroid by 2025, and then to aim for crewed Mars missions by the 2030s. Modifying the Orion capsule design — rather than drawing up plans for an entirely new spaceship — should help make that feasible, agency officials said.

"We made this choice based on the progress that's been made to date," Doug Cooke, associate administrator for NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in Washington, told reporters Tuesday. "It made the most sense to stick with it [the Orion design]."

Meet the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle
Lockheed Martin Corp., NASA's prime contractor for Orion, will continue work to develop the MPCV spacecraft. So far, NASA has invested a little more than $5 billion in the spaceship, which is pretty far along, Cooke said.

Lockheed has already built a full-size mock-up vehicle, called a Ground Test Article, and will soon subject it to a series of rigorous trials at a facility in Colorado.

The gumdrop-shaped MPCV is about 16.5 feet (5 meters) wide at its base and weighs about 23 tons. The space capsule will have a pressurized volume of 690 cubic feet (20 cubic meters), with 316 cubic feet (9 cubic meters) of habitable space, according to an official description. It's designed to carry four astronauts at a time and return to Earth with splashdowns in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast. [Vote Now! The Best Spaceships of All Time]

The spacecraft will be NASA's primary vehicle for delivering astronauts to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, such as asteroids or Mars. Such journeys would take months, and the four astronauts won't be cooped up in the cramped MPCV the entire time. Rather, the capsule will meet up with some type of habitation module in space, making the trip much more comfortable.

"You wouldn't expect a crew to live in this for long periods of time," Cooke said.

The MPCV is designed to be 10 times safer during launch, re-entry and landing than its predecessor, the space shuttle, NASA officials said. Much of this improved safety comes from a launch-abort system, which can steer the crew away from its rocket in case anything goes wrong during liftoff, Cooke said. The space shuttle has no such capability.

The MPCV will be capable of performing a variety of in-space activities, such as rendezvousing and docking with other craft. And astronauts aboard the MPCV will be able to perform spacewalks, officials said.

Lockheed Martin
The MPCV is being assembled and tested at a Lockheed Martin facility in Colorado.

Though its chief calling is roaming far afield, the spaceship may also be called upon to deliver cargo and crew to the International Space Station from time to time. "It's basically overkill for that type of mission, but it could do that," Cooke said.

Launch dates still up in the air
The Orion space capsule was originally designed to launch on NASA's Ares 1 rocket, with a larger heavy-lift rocket called Ares 5 planned to launch moon landers and other deep-space flight hardware. But the cancellation of the Constellation program eliminated the Ares vehicles, so things are different for the MPCV.

It will lift off aboard the Space Launch System, a new heavy-lift rocket that NASA is also developing, agency officials said. Last year, Congress instructed the agency to have the spaceship and the SLS ready to go by 2016. That's not likely to happen, however, as NASA officials have yet to settle on a final design for the rocket.

That decision should come soon, according to Cooke.

"We will be working toward solutions and final decisions on the launch vehicle in the coming weeks, and are still shooting for the earliest possible dates in the early summer for completing that," he said.

With all the uncertainty surrounding the SLS, Cooke declined to venture a guess about when the MPCV could start carrying crews for the first time. He said initial test flights should take place sometime this decade, and it's possible that they'll use rockets other than the SLS.

"We haven't made any decision on a launch vehicle for test flights," Cooke said.

In its original incarnation, the Orion capsule was supposed to make its first test flight in 2013 and begin operations by 2016.

NASA in transition
Since the MPCV is based on existing designs, it won't require a radical rethink. And that thread of continuity may be welcome at NASA, which is in a period of dramatic transition.

The agency's space shuttle program, for example, will draw to a close this summer after three decades of service. The shuttle Atlantis' STS-135 mission in July will be the last for NASA's workhorse orbiter fleet, which will soon be put on display in museums around the country. [Most Memorable Space Shuttle Missions]

In the short term, NASA astronauts will get rides to the space station aboard Russian Soyuz vehicles. But over the long haul, Obama's vision calls for commercial American spaceships to provide this taxi service. NASA is working with and funding several private companies, such as California-based SpaceX, to help them develop these new craft.

That move is intended to free NASA up for more ambitious exploration efforts.

"The NASA Authorization Act lays out a clear path forward for us by handing off transportation to the International Space Station to our private sector partners, so we can focus on deep space exploration," NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said in a statement. "As we aggressively continue our work on a heavy lift launch vehicle, we are moving forward with an existing contract to keep development of our new crew vehicle on track."

You can follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Explainer: Out-of-this-world destinations

  • NASA

    We are headed to Mars ... eventually. But first we need the rocket technology and human spaceflight savvy to get us there safely and efficiently. And the best way to do that is to visit places such as asteroids, our moon, a Martian moon and even no man's lands in space called "Lagrange points," NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained during the unveiling of the agency's revised vision for space exploration.

    The vision shifts focus away from a return to the moon as part of a steppingstone to Mars in favor of what experts call a "flexible path" to space exploration, pushing humans ever deeper into the cosmos.

    Click the "Next" label to check out six other potential destinations astronauts may visit in the years and decades to come en route to Mars.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lessons to learn on the space station

    NASA

    The cooperation required to build and maintain the International Space Station will be a key to propelling humans on to Mars, according to Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society. The society is a space advocacy organization that supports the flexible path to space exploration. In fact, the space station itself could be a training ground for Mars-bound astronauts.

    Astronauts can spend ever longer blocks of time on the station to gain experience in long-duration flights, for example. They could also practice extravehicular activities akin to those expected on a Mars mission, Friedman noted.

  • Lunar orbit, a test of new technology

    NASA

    Lunar orbit, too, is a familiar destination for human spaceflight, but a return to the familiar with new technology would allow astronauts to test the engineering of systems designed to go deeper into space, according to Friedman.

    A return to the moon is still in the cards on the flexible path, but going to lunar orbit first defers the cost of developing the landing and surface systems needed to get in and out of the lunar gravity well, according to experts.

    The famous "Earthrise" image shown here was made in 1968 during Apollo 8, the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

  • Stable no man's lands in space

    NASA / WMAP Science Team

    There are places in space where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the moon, or Earth and the sun, have a balancing effect on a third body in orbit. Those five locations, known as Lagrange points, could offer relatively stable parking spots for astronomical facilities such as space telescopes or satellites. Human spaceflights to these points would allow astronauts to service these instruments.

    In addition, space experts believe a trip to a Lagrange point could serve as a training mission for astronauts headed to points deeper in space, such as an asteroid. Nevertheless, reaching a Lagrange point would be more of a technical achievement than a scientific achievement, according to Friedman. "It is an empty spot in space," he said.

  • Visit an asteroid near you?

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Dan Durda  /  FIAAA

    The first stop astronauts may make in interplanetary space is one of the asteroids that cross near Earth's orbit. Scientists have a keen interest in the space rocks because of the threat that one of them could strike Earth with devastating consequences. An asteroid mission would allow scientists to better understand what makes the rocks tick, and thus how to best divert one that threatens to smack our planet.

    Humans have also never been to an asteroid, which would make such a visit an exciting first, noted Friedman. "Imagine how interesting it will be to see an astronaut step out of a spacecraft and down onto an asteroid and perform scientific experiments," he said. What's more, since asteroids have almost no gravity, an asteroid encounter would be like docking with the space station, which doesn't require a heavy-lift rocket for the return. That makes an asteroid a potentially less expensive destination than the surface of the moon.

  • Back to the moon?

    NASA via Getty Images

    The moon-Mars path of human space exploration originally envisioned the moon as a training ground for a mission to the Red Planet. While the flexible-path strategy broadens the training field, the moon remains a candidate destination, according to NASA.

    Several other nations also have the moon's surface in their sights, including Japan, India and China. Some experts fear the dedicated lunar programs of these nations will eventually leave the United States in the dust as it focuses on an ambiguous flexible path.

    Friedman, of The Planetary Society, said NASA should support the lunar programs of Japan, India and China as part of team building for an international Mars mission, but sees no reason for NASA to focus on the moon. "We've done that already and that was Apollo," he said.

  • Martian moon a final pit stop?

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

    Before astronauts go all the way to Mars, there's reason to make a final stop at one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos. The two moons are less than 20 miles across at their widest, which means landing on them would be less expensive than the Red Planet itself.

    Friedman used to consider a mission to a Martian moon nonsensical - akin to going to the base camp of Mount Everest instead of going to the top of the mountain. "I've now turned myself around on that, because you do go to the base camp and you do actually conduct training activities there before you attempt the summit," he said.

    "By all means go there," he added. "Test out your rendezvous and docking at Mars, conduct your three-year, round-trip mission, maybe tele-operate some rovers of the surface (of Mars). That will all be interesting and then the next mission will finally go down to the surface."

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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