NASA announced Tuesday it will use designs originally planned for the Orion crew exploration vehicle to develop the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle a spacecraft that would take astronauts to distant asteroids and Mars.

Orion formerly was a part of NASA’s Constellation program which intended to send astronauts back to the moon.

President Barack Obama canceled Constellation in 2010 and proposed reconfiguring Orion to travel unmanned to the International Space Station and serve as a standby emergency vehicle.

NASA’s 2010 Authorization Act directed the space agency to turnover low Earth orbit crew and cargo vehicle development to the private sector freeing NASA to focus on deep space exploration.

The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle will carry four astronauts for 21-day missions and be able to land in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast according to NASA.

The spacecraft will have a pressurized volume of 690 cubic feet with 316 cubic feet of habitable space. It is designed to be 10 times safer during ascent and entry than the space shuttle.

Lockheed Martin has been developing Orion since 2006. The Orion Project Office at Johnson Space Center leads the vehicle’s development and oversees Orion’s crew training and mockup facilities.

Lockheed Martin and its major subcontractors employ about 500 people on the OrionMulti-Purpose Crew Vehicle program in the Houston area Linda Singleton Orion communications manager said.

“The economic impact of the OrionMPCV project is significant” Singleton said. “Of the estimated 3000 people working on Orion across the country about 2100 are employed by Lockheed Martin its subcontractors and commercial suppliers.”

NASA has invested about $5 billion in the program Douglas Cooke the agency’s associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate said.

“We consider this vehicle to be the best option in vehicle development for beyond low Earth orbit Cooke said.

“This is the Orion-based concept that was designed for deep space missions and has appropriate design requirements for that kind of mission. We did look at alternatives in some of the system designs we’re seeing in some concepts in various commercial designs.”

NASA will not change its existing contract with Lockheed Martin Cooke said.

Bob Mitchell president of the Bay Area Economic Partnership said he was puzzled the administration would re-examine its plans for Orion.

“It’s a great announcement because obviously we can maintain the current workforce that has dedicated to working on this Orion vehicle” Mitchell said.

“It makes sense because of the commitment of time and effort that has already been put into this vehicle and the success Lockheed Martin has had with the launch abort system.”

Cooke said he hopes the vehicle’s first test flight comes during this decade.

NASA should now focus on finalizing and announcing the heavy lift launch vehicle configuration to accelerate work on the program U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison R-Texas said in a statement.

“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” Hutchison said.

“Congress recently enacted a full year appropriation for NASA that clearly directed the agency to continue Orion. I am pleased this decision has finally been announced. In order to avoid the needless loss of additional skills and infrastructure.”

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