Work Continues on New NASA Spaceships, Despite Uncertainties

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NASA is pushing ahead with work on its new Orion space capsule and Ares rockets despite their ambiguous status as lawmakers discuss the agency's 2011 budget request.

Orion and Ares are part of Constellation, a NASA program designed to take astronauts back to the moon. Under his 2011 budget proposal, President Barack Obama called for canceling Constellation and urged NASA to work toward sending humans to an asteroid and then on to Mars.

The outlook for Constellation's fledgling rocket and capsule spacecraft is not clear. Obama did recommend continuing development of Orion -- but only as an escape ship that could carry astronauts home from the International Space Station in an emergency.

A NASA authorization bill recently passed by the Senate would direct the space agency to continue developing Orion and to fast-track plans for heavy-lift rockets and vehicles required for space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. A different bill under consideration in the House also seeks to revive some Constellation plans, including Orion and the Ares rockets.

Political uncertainty

Since 2006, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has contracted with Lockheed Martin to build the Orion spacecraft -- a 21,000-pound (9,500-kg) capsule that would ride atop a rocket to carry a crew of four to six into space.

Initially, the spacecraft was on the chopping block along with the rest of the Constellation program, but it received a reprieve of sorts in April when Obama unveiled plans to use a stripped-down version of the capsule as an escape ship. [FAQ: NASA's New Direction]

Regardless of Orion's future, Lockheed is contracted to continue working on it throughout this year.

"We have been on contract to execute the 2010 plan, and there are a lot of accomplishments and milestones in that plan," said Larry Price, Lockheed's Orion deputy program manager. He acknowledged that the political uncertainty is distracting.

"It is a disturbance, people wonder what's happening," Price told "But people are doing this because they are passionate about it. It is exciting, inspiring work to be building a human spacecraft to go beyond low Earth orbit."

Among recent milestones was a test in May that demonstrated the spacecraft's abort system, a set of solid rocket motors that could eject the capsule from a malfunctioning rocket and land it safely on the ground. In terms of safety, that system could give the vehicle a leg up on the space shuttle, since the shuttle system was deemed too complicated to incorporate such an escape method.

Lockheed, with subcontractor Ball Aerospace, also recently tested a new docking navigation system for Orion. That system is due to be tested in space by astronauts aboard the STS-134 space shuttle when it flies to the space station in February. It will be part of a test being called STORRM, for "Sensor Test for Orion Relative Navigation Risk Mitigation."

"STORRM continues unaffected by current events," Ball Aerospace spokeswoman Roz Brown wrote in an e-mail. She said the STORRM unit was integrated into the shuttle Endeavor earlier this month.

The Orion spacecraft reached another milestone when its design passed the Phase 1 safety review of NASA's Human Rating Requirements, a rigorous examination to make sure the capsule's design is sound for carrying people.

"It says the design is in synch with the human requirements, not only the functional requirements" of traveling to space, Price said.

New rockets

Orion was originally intended to fly atop an Ares I rocket, a next-generation booster planned under Constellation.

The Obama administration's proposal scrapped plans for Ares I and its big sibling, the Ares V heavy-lift rocket. Yet some lawmakers are lobbying to revive plans for the vehicles.

NASA has contracted with Alliant Techsystems to build the booster's solid-rocket first stage, and with Boeing to build the vehicle's liquid-fueled second stage.

Last October NASA conducted a test launch of its Ares I-X vehicle, a prototype for Ares I. This test version, which included a real first stage and a dummy second stage and capsule, lifted off to about 28 miles (45 km) altitude from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Alliant Techsystems (ATK) is planning another major test for Aug. 31. Engineers will conduct a static-fire test of the Ares I's first-stage solid rocket Development Motor at the company's facility in Promontory, Utah. For a static-fire test, the five-segment, 154-foot-long  (47-meter-long) motor will be held on the ground horizontally while the engine fires sideways.

"A robust ground and flight test program is a critical part of human-rating to ensure reliability and safety when launching crew into any orbit," Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager of ATK Space Launch Systems, said in a statement. "This test is a vital milestone in further growing the performance database for this new five-segment solid rocket motor."

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