The “key decision” that NASA announced Tuesday regarding the agency’s space exploration plans was not too surprising, and perhaps a bit underwhelming: NASA is transitioning its existing work on the Orion spacecraft to the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). In the NASA statement and media teleconference later that day, NASA indicated there would be effectively no major modifications to Orion to become MPCV, but offered little in the way of specifics on the cost of the MPCV or when it would be ready to begin flights.
The MPCV was included in the NASA authorization act last year with a specific requirement to “continue to advance development of the human safety features, designs, and systems in the Orion project.” There was, then, an expectation that NASA would do what it announced yesterday, and transition its existing Orion contract to the MPCV; there was also some frustration in Congress that NASA was taking a long time to make that decision. Now, though, that NASA has done just that, members of Congress are expressing their support for that move, while pressing NASA to also make a decision soon on the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lifter.
“This is a good thing,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said in a statement. The decision “shows real progress towards the goal of exploring deep space” and also helps Florida, he added, since hundreds will be employed at the Kennedy Space Center to process the MPCV for launch. The release also notes that NASA administrator Charles Bolden called Nelson personally to inform him of the decision. In that call, Bolden told the senator that soon “NASA will be making further decisions with regard to the ‘transportation architecture’ of a big deep space rocket.”
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) also supported the decision. “After more than a year of uncertainty and delay, NASA has come to the same conclusion that it reached years ago — Orion is the vehicle that will advance our human exploration in space,” she said in a statement (not yet posted online.) She reminded NASA, though, that it “must continue to follow law” and announce plans for the SLS. “NASA needs to follow this important step by quickly finalizing and announcing the heavy lift launch vehicle configuration so that work can accelerate and the requirements of the law can be met.”
“This was the only fiscally and technologically prudent decision that NASA could make,” Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) said in a statement. “With this decision NASA can continue to build on current projects and investments rather than further delay with unnecessary procurements.”
NASA’s decision means that Lockheed Martin’s contract to work on Orion/MPCV will continue, and that’s a relief for people in Colorado, where much of that work is taking place. In a joint statement, Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) noted the decision protects over 1,000 aerospace jobs, and nearly 4,000 total jobs, in the state, which to them appeared to be just as important as the MPCV’s role in future human space exploration. “With the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s [sic] final launch, Orion represents the next frontier in human space exploration and has the potential to stir the imagination of a new generation of young scientists while giving our economy a much needed boost,” Bennet said.