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Obama to Revive Orion Spacecraft

The Orion spacecraft, intended to return humans to the moon and prepare for future voyages to Mars and other destinations in our solar system. This artist's rendering represents a concept of the Orion spacecraft approaching the International Space Station in Earth-orbit.NASA

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. --  A top NASA official said President Obama will announce plans to continue development of a stripped-down version of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle for use as a crew lifeboat on the International Space Station

Obama, who is scheduled to deliver a space policy speech at NASA's Kennedy Space Station in Florida April 15, will also unveil plans to initiate development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle by 2015, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told reporters following remarks at the 26th National Space Symposium here April 13. 

Orion -- part of NASA's five-year-old Constellation program designed to replace the retiring space shuttle with new rockets and spacecraft optimized for the moon -- was targeted for termination in Obama's 2011 budget request. 

Since then lawmakers from both parties have sharply criticized Obama's proposal to scrap Constellation in favor of investing in privately developed crew taxis capable of ferrying astronauts in low Earth orbit. 

Garver said NASA has no plans to continue development of Orion for exploration beyond low Earth orbit

"We will ask them to focus Orion for the government purposes on our unique requirement of crew escape," she said, adding that Lockheed Martin would be welcome to use the Orion capsule to bid on the agency's $6 billion commercial crew program proposed in the president's 2011 budget. 

"That would be a company decision on bidding for commercial crew technology," she said. 

Garver said Obama also would announce a plan to select a heavy-lift vehicle design by 2015, an element previously missing from the human spaceflight plan put forward in Obama's 2011 budget. That omission has drawn fire from lawmakers concerned that a heavy-lift development program is needed to maintain the nation's leadership in manned space exploration.

"We're going to have a date specific to make a decision about the heavy lift vehicle in 2015," she said, adding that the $3.1 billion Obama proposed to study advanced heavy lift propulsion capabilities over the next five years "is going to have us much further along down the path, and when we choose that vehicle we'll be able to have a running start." 

Orion was intended Orion for transporting cargo and up to six crew members to and from the International Space Station. It was intended originally to carry four crewmembers for lunar missions, and ultimately to support crew transfers for Mars missions.

Orion borrows its shape from space capsules of the past, but takes advantage of the latest technology in computers, electronics, life support, propulsion and heat protection systems. The capsule's conical shape is the safest and most reliable for re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, especially at the velocities required for a direct return from the moon.

Orion was to be 16.5 feet in diameter with a mass of about 25 tons. Inside, it would have more than 2.5 times the volume of an Apollo capsule. 

NASA will have five years to flesh out concepts for other technologies that could be developed to support human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit, including on-orbit propellant depots, inflatable habitats, and in space resource production. 

"Things that allow you to size your architecture in a way that we'll be able to go beyond [low Earth orbit] farther, faster, with a heavy lift that truly makes sense for the program," she said. "And using more of the advanced technology that we've invested in the heavy lift program." 

Meanwhile, NASA will have five years to flesh out concepts for other technologies that could be developed to support human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit, including on-orbit propellant depots, inflatable habitats, and in space resource production. 

"Things that allow you to size your architecture in a way that we'll be able to go beyond [low Earth orbit] farther, faster, with a heavy lift that truly makes sense for the program," she said. "And using more of the advanced technology that we've invested in the heavy lift program." 

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