Star Power

NASA's Constellation Program aims to return astronauts to the moon and beyond.

NASA's next-generation spacecraft will be known as Orion, named for one of the brightest, most recognizable constellations adorning the night sky. Like its namesake, the ambitious spacecraft program will have worldwide visibility. Lockheed Martin Corp. bested the industry team of Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing Co. to win the Orion procurement-the most significant space contract in three decades-on Aug. 31, 2006.

Orion is to be a multipurpose space capsule styled after the iconic Apollo vehicles, although much larger and far more capable. It will be a key component of a new space transportation system being pursued by NASA under the Constellation Program, an ambitious plan to return astronauts to the moon and beyond. The program also includes Ares launch vehicles, which would carry both cargo and people into space and eventually to Mars. NASA expects to award a key contract for guidance, navigation and control hardware for Ares I in November.

Orion is being designed to fly to the moon, but will likely be used for other missions as well, such as servicing the International Space Station or de-orbiting the Hubble Space Telescope two decades from now, said Jeff Hanley, the Constellation Program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, when the award was announced.

Orion's first flight with astronauts aboard was to occur no later than 2014; its first flight to the moon no later than 2020. But that schedule already has slipped. Under the continuing resolution that authorized funding for most federal agencies in 2007, after Congress failed to pass funding bills last year, NASA took a $545 million hit and is reconsidering the timelines of many programs, including Orion.

With the space shuttle fleet planned for retirement in 2010, NASA already faced a serious transportation gap, one that threatened to widen with budget uncertainty. NASA intends to fill the gap between the shuttle and Orion with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services initiative, essentially a commercial shuttle service for putting humans in space. NASA last fall winnowed down a slate of commercial contenders for the program and contracted with Rocketplane Kistler and SpaceX to provide up to $485 million to demonstrate cargo transportation services to and from low-Earth orbit. If that proves successful, it will commit additional funds to demonstrate human spaceflight, and if that demonstration is successful, NASA expects to purchase commercial transport services for supplying the International Space Station.

At a budget hearing earlier this year, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said the agency faces tough decisions and a lot of hard work if it is to effectively manage the transition from the space shuttle to the Orion and Ares launch vehicles under the Constellation Program.

"The greatest challenge NASA faces is safely flying the space shuttle to assemble the International Space Station prior to retiring the shuttle in 2010, while also bringing new U.S. human spaceflight capabilities online soon thereafter. We must understand that, given proper goals, human spaceflight is a strategic capability for this nation, and we must not allow it to slip away," Griffin said.

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