NASA's new spacecraft for exploring space beyond the low Earth orbit is not so new. Late yesterday the agency announced that its proposed Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), which is intended to take humans to asteroids and eventually to Mars, will be virtually identical in design to Orion, a space capsule that was being developed under the Bush Administration's Constellation program.
The announcement means that the approximately $5 billion that NASA has spent on the development of Orion since 2005 will not have gone to waste. Essentially, Orion will live on, though under the clunky acronym of MPCV. Lockheed Martin, the contractor that had been developing Orion, will remain as the contractor for the MPCV. The announcement also indicates that NASA officials are finally giving shape to the contours of the agency's new space program.
NASA has been criticized by lawmakers for not having a clear plan after the Obama Administration announced the cancellation of the Constellation program, whose goal was to return humans to the moon by 2020. After some political wrangling last year, the Administration said that it intended to retain parts of Constellation in its new plan.
The MPCV will be built to carry four astronauts on 21-day missions. It will be launched by a rocket designed to shoot beyond low Earth orbit. Weighing 23 tons with a pressurized volume of 690 cubic feet, the vehicle will be designed for multiple trips, ending each of them by landing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. NASA officials expect it to be built within the decade.