NASA's new space capsule to be ready for test flights by 2013

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Friday, October 1, 2010

Artist's impression of NASA's new Orion capsule.
Image: NASA.

NASA's Space Shuttle replacement, the Orion spacecraft, is anticipated to be ready for test flights by 2013.

Orion, part of the original Constellation program proposal, would be used in a NASA initiative to return astronauts to the moon. However, United States president Barack Obama cancelled the program in his 2011 budget. He instead advised NASA to focus on a manned mission to an asteroid, and then to Mars.

Obama supports the development of the capsule only as an emergency escape 'lifeboat' for the International Space Station.

The end of the Space Shuttle program will see many contractors out of work. The United States Congress is debating a bill to add one more shuttle mission in the gap between the currently scheduled last shuttle mission and the first manned flight of the capsule, in order to alleviate concerns over job loss and the gap between the end of shuttle missions and the entry into service of a replacement American vehicle.

Despite uncertainty about the future and usage of Orion, Lockheed Martin, the craft's manufacturer, continues to work on it and plans to have a fully-operational model ready by the end of 2012. The company is also drawing up flight plans for possible missions.

In the original Constellation program proposal, the capsule would have been used to transport a six-member crew to and from the International Space Station, and a four-member crew on trips to the moon. Although Obama's newly proposed plan involves missions to asteroids and eventually Mars, Lockheed Martin officials still believe that Orion would be a prime candidate for the job.

"It's possible to make Orion compatible with other launch vehicles," said Josh Hopkins, a Lockheed Martin official. "It doesn't actually look all that hard."