NASA to use moon capsule for other space missions
HOUSTON — NASA announced Tuesday that it found the ideal spaceship to take astronauts far from earth — the same one they've been working on for several years and have spent $5 billion on.
All the Orion capsule needed was a new name — the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.
NASA said it decided the spacecraft would be what takes astronauts to a still-to-be-determined destination. The disposable capsule would take four astronauts on 21-day trips.
The Orion capsule was a cornerstone of former President George W. Bush's plan to return astronauts to the moon. NASA gave Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., a $7.5 billion contract in 2006 to build it.
The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is the same ship with almost no changes, said NASA associate administrator Doug Cooke during a Tuesday teleconference.
The capsule is the only part of the Bush space plan that President Barack Obama did not cancel last year. NASA said then the Orion capsule could be used as an escape lifeboat at the International Space Station. Now the ship will be attached to a still-to-be-designed big rocket and go out of Earth's orbit.
Possible destinations include nearby asteroids and eventually Mars.
"We made this choice based on the progress made to date," Cooke said. "This vehicle design and concept is most appropriate for the future direction. It made the most sense to stick with it."
Cooke had no date for launching the capsule with astronauts aboard, no specific destination, and no eventual cost of each capsule or the entire program. But it will cost less than the original plan because NASA has found some "efficiencies," Cooke said, without elaborating.
The ship would not be reusable because it will land in the Pacific Ocean and salt water corrodes metal. It will land like the Apollo capsules with a parachute and weigh about 23 tons.
That's a mistake, said George Abbey, former director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. He said the ship design is too heavy and landing in water is a mistake. He said it goes back to the past instead of building on the reusability of the space shuttle program.
The space shuttle fleet is retiring in July. Eventually, private companies will take over the job of carrying cargo and astronauts to the space station.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and former space shuttle flier, said using Orion means a "huge savings" for taxpayers because billions have already been spent on it.
"This is a good thing," Nelson said in a statement. "It shows real progress towards the goal of exploring deep space and eventually getting to Mars."