NASA's Orion begins road to space travel

Moon craft becoming emergency escape vehicle for space station

Lockheed Martin unveiled a new spacecraft this week that was originally meant to ferry astronauts to the moon but may first be used as an emergency escape vehicle for the International Space Station.

At the same time that the company was taking the wraps off of Orion, it also was showing off a new massive test facility near Denver. The 41,000-square-foot facility is designed to simulate deep-space environments, as well as missions to an asteroid or the moon.

Slated to conduct its first orbital flight test as early as 2013, the Orion spacecraft is set to undergo testing in the new facility to make sure it's able to endure the harsh environments of deep space.

Orion is on track to begin running real space missions by 2016.

John Karas, vice president and general manager for Lockheed Martin's Human Space Flight programs, said in a statement, "Our nation's next bold step in exploration could begin by 2016."

"Orion was designed from inception to fly multiple, deep-space missions," Karas said. "The spacecraft is an incredibly robust, technically advanced vehicle capable of safely transporting humans to asteroids, Lagrange Points and other deep space destinations that will put us on an affordable and sustainable path to Mars."

Orion was first conceived as part of NASA's Constellation program, which was geared to return humans to the moon by 2020. However, last year the Obama administration scrapped the over-budget and behind-schedule Constellation program, deciding instead to focus on sending astronauts to Mars and further into the solar system.

The administration's new plan also involves turning NASA's attention to developing new engines, in-space fuel depots and robots that can venture out into space.

However, the president tried to fend off some of the criticism of his plan by enabling NASA to proceed with part of the Constellation program -- developing a version of the Orion crew capsule for use as an emergency escape craft for astronauts aboard the space station.

Once NASA retires the last of the space shuttle fleet this year, Orion may take on an important role in terms of giving NASA the ability to safely evacuate astronauts from the space station.

NASA has said that engineers there will put Orion's new crew module through a series of simulated landing scenarios at NASA Langley's new Hydro Impact Basin.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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