MPCV: Much ado about (mostly) nothing

25 05 2011

Pressure test of the Orion/MPCV capsule conducted 5-5-2011. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

So, despite what the “milestone” wording in yesterday’s media alert seemed to suggest, the much-anticipated announcement from NASA did not declare a new exploration goal.  Instead, a “new,” “deep space” vehicle was announced: the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV. 

The thing is, it isn’t really a new vehicle. 

As designer/manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s own press release admits, the vehicle is simply their Orion spacecraft (developed under NASA’s now-cancelled Constellation Program) reborn under a new name.

MPCV/Orion in Martian orbit. (Credit: NASA)

Why all the fuss?  Good question.  The rechristening of the vehicle indicates that NASA will continue to support its development, which should be a relief to all of the Orion personnel.  -And, while NASA did not come out and officially adopt the plan and timeline as I would have hoped, all of the subtext seems to indicate that they are embracing President Obama’s (and Lockheed’s) proposal to send human explorers to an asteroid, a Martian moon, and on to Mars.

If this delineation is real, and NewSpace is intended to take over LEO and lunar operations while NASA aims to send astronauts farther out, then I think this is a wonderful development.  There’s room for everyone.

It is my sincerest hope that this is not simply wordplay intended to loft a sagging program with no real defined end-use or objective.

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NASA’s Orion spacecraft escapes doom

12 05 2010

Successful firing of the Orion capsule launch-abort system from the White Sands Missile Range, N.M. Credit: AP/Craig Fritz

A quick, bittersweet post: NASA recently tested the launch-abort system for their all-but-cancelled Orion spacecraft, rocketing it into the air under its own power and letting it parachute to a safe landing.  Orion, which was intended to be the replacement for the retiring Space Shuttle, is modeled after an Apollo-style teardrop-shaped capsule atop a booster rocket. 

New Orion crew capsule parachuting to a safe landing after the launch-abort test May 6th. Credit: AP/Craig Fritz

The launch-abort system is designed to save astronauts on the launch pad or during the ascent to orbit, and while it was not actually attached to a rocket booster, the system was “live” tested as if it were attached to a malfunctioning rocket.  As it would appear, the test was a complete success – a triumph for the Constellation and Orion program workers, but bittersweet in that now, Orion will likely never splash down carrying astronauts fresh from leaving boot tracks on the Moon.

Certainly a nostalgic sight, the triple-parachute style carries over from the Space Race era, conjuring feelings of heroes returning from the Moon.  However, with the recent cancellation of the Constellation bid for the Moon and Mars, Orion is no longer a full-fledged replacement for the Space Shuttle.  Instead, under the new Obama directive, Orion has eeked out an existence amidst private space corporations vying for NASA launch contracts as a crew escape vehicle for astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

With images like these, it’s hard not to imagine the Orion that might have been.





Congressman Posey throws Space Smackdown ahead of Obama Speech

9 04 2010

Late last month, Representative Bill Posey (R-Florida) wrote an intense letter to President Obama, who is currently preparing to outline the nation’s new Vision for Space Exploration this Thursday.  Unnervingly, no one really knows what the President is going to say, except that we know he’s cancelled NASA’s Moon-Mars Constellation Program and the Ares-class of lifting rockets, but he is going to divert more money to the private sector instead.  Beyond that is anyone’s guess.

To that end, first-term Congressman Posey took it upon himself to snail-mail Obama and basically accuse him of:

  1. Being a hypocrite,
  2. Turning his back on his campaign promises with regard to space exploration,
  3. Needlessly sacrificing the Shuttle, (a worthy space vehicle according to the Augustine Commission,)
  4. Relinquishing our space superiority (and national security by extension) to Russia and China,
  5. Kicking Florida’s already-thrashed employees while they’re down by canceling NASA’s Constellation Program,
  6. Leaving our own astronauts in the cold by failing to propose or develop a new space vehicle while retiring the Shuttle.

He then asks for an invite to the speech this Thursday to participate.  That’s moxie.

On the whole, I really respect Representative Posey’s position, and the letter is definitely worth reading for those interested in the future of our space program.  Considering the points the congressman makes, unless Obama can deliver a strong message and instill a firm, clear, and captivating goal for U.S. space exploration, (Mars, asteroids… something exciting,) or unless private spaceflight steps up to the plate, I believe you, Bill.

We just might lose our edge.





Capital Hill fights back to save Shuttle, Constellation rockets, and jobs?

14 03 2010

In the face of President Obama’s recent push to privatize spaceflight at the expense of NASA’s space fleet, parallel bills are being introduced in the U.S. House and Senate to bolster the government’s waning space capabilities.  Called the Human Spaceflight Capability Assurance and Protection Act, the bills propose additional funding to extend the operational life of both the Shuttle and the International Space Station while salvaging a NASA-led Shuttle replacement from the mothballed Constellation Program.

By my rough calculations, this effectively calls for doubling NASA’s budget for FY 2011 and 2012.

While the bill’s proponents in the House, (Congressmen Kosmas and Posey of Florida,) claim the measure ensures the U.S.’s ability to make full use of the International Space Station, it feels more like politicians trying to keep jobs in Florida prior to an election.   Provisions in the bill still prioritize commercial spaceflight on paper, but  being in the same breath as calling for more money to keep flying the Space Shuttle fleet, more money for developing new space vehicles, and more money to extend the life of the space station surely means commercial programs would end up taking a back-seat to government-controlled programs.   I can’t imagine Congress agreeing to double NASA’s budget, especially in the midst of our financial crisis.  -And if this agenda is approved without the funding, (which is what doomed Constellation in the first place,) it seems highly unlikely to me that NASA would prioritize its commercial contracts over its own fleet. 

Congressmen – what’s best for Florida may not be best for American spaceflight.  It’s time to put some faith back into private industry. 

Let’s see if entrepreneurs can go where no man has gone before.








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