NASA Moves Closer to Manned Missions to Mars

NASA has moved one step closer to sending astronauts into deep space with the announced development of the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).

The MPCV replaces the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, commissioned under President Bush and nixed under President Obama due to budgetary constraints. Funds used in the development of the Orion ship had exceeded five billion dollars at the time of the project’s cancellation.

President Obama has instead set goals of a manned mission to a near-earth asteroid in the next twenty years, and a possible manned mission to Mars in the next thirty. NASA hopes the MPCV will help meet these goals. Unlike the Orion, which had been developed with the moon as its only destination, the MPCV will be used as the primary vehicle in the manned exploration of entirely new frontiers, such as asteroids or the Martian moons.

The development of the MPCV was brought about by the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which shifted NASA’s focus away from the moon and towards a “permanent human presence beyond low Earth orbit.” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden spoke on the Authorization Act and development of the MPCV in a statement released Tuesday.

“We are committed to human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and look forward to developing the next generation of systems to take us there. 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,” he said.

The MPCV will consist of three components – a launch abort system, the crew module, and the service module, though only the crew module will return to Earth. The launch abort system peels off after the successful climb to orbit, while the service module, which generates electricity, stores oxygen, and can deliver scientific payloads, separates from the crew module immediately preceding re-entry.

The spacecraft is expected to be able to carry four astronauts into deep space, on missions lasting up to 21 days. On missions of longer duration, the MPCV would append a larger module, acting in a dormant, supportive capacity. The MPCV will also be capable of standard “in-space” activities, such as extravehicular activity or docking, and will serve as a possible fallback for delivering crew and cargo to the International Space Station.

In total, the volume of the pod-like MPCV will be approximately 690 cubic feet, of which 316 cu ft will be habitable.  The ship will take-off aboard a larger rocket and will splash land off the coast of California. Although reminiscent of the old Apollo spacecrafts, the design of the MPCV maximizes safety – its launches and landings are expected to be ten times safer than those of the space shuttles.

The contract for development of the spacecraft remains with Lockheed Martin Corporation, the primary contractor of the scrapped Orion ship. The decision to stay with Lockheed Martin drew some criticism given the final costs of the Orion project. SpaceX, a private company, has also indicated it can develop a similar ship for significantly lower costs.  However, NASA officials were careful to point out that budgetary considerations remain paramount.

“This selection does not indicate a business as usual mentality for NASA programs,” stated Douglas Cooke, an associate administrator with the NASA Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. “The Orion government and industry team has shown exceptional creativity in finding ways to keep costs down through management techniques, technical solutions and innovation.”

The announcement of the development of the MPCV comes a little over a month before the final launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. Scheduled for liftoff in early July, Atlantis’ completion of the STS-135 mission will signify the end of the shuttle program.

Photo Credits: NASA

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