With the Space Shuttle's last ride right around the corner, there's a worry that NASA will be out of the manned spaceflight game for good, leaving it to the private sector instead. Well, walking back out onto the stage like a rockstar for an encore, NASA just screamed, "We're going into deep space, ya'll!" before diving into the crowd.
At the heart of NASA's "Deep Space Transportation System" is a manned crew-capsule-and-rocket combo the agency has tasked Lockheed Martin with cobbling together. Called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (or MPCV), NASA envisions the spacecraft taking a crew of four astronauts into deep space on missions lasting upwards of 21 days (so, no Mars landings just yet), and then splashing down in the Pacific Ocean just like in the old days. It's also billed as being "10 times safer during ascent and entry than its predecessor, the space shuttle."
The MPCV's crew capsule design takes a direct cue from Orion, which was to fulfill the same role for the Constellation program, an initiative that was canned after it fell behind schedule and over budget.
That four-person limit is down from what the Orion capsule was originally supposed to ferry around at six crew (and lower than the shuttles six to eight), and the craft also doesn't look like it'll be able to transport the same heavy loads the Space Shuttle did, such as deploying a satellite into orbit. What it can do is take that crew out of low earth orbit, meaning real-deal, manned outer space exploration and study. It can also dock with the International Space Station, making one wonder if, in the future, the MPCV might not just deploy from the ISS for multiple missions rather than always returning to Earth. Here's what we're looking at — you can see the capsule nestled in the chassis:
We've know that Lockheed Martin was working on a manned capsule for deep space exploration for a while now, but it's nice to hear it officially from NASA. Now, after the Space Transportation System — the formal name for the Space Shuttle program — ends, it sounds like the Deep Space Transportation System will be the agency's focus.
From NASA Administration Charles Bolden:
"We are committed to human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and look forward to developing the next generation of systems to take us there. The NASA Authorization Act lays out a clear path forward for us by handing off transportation to the International Space Station to our private sector partners, so we can focus on deep space exploration. As we aggressively continue our work on a heavy lift launch vehicle, we are moving forward with an existing contract to keep development of our new crew vehicle on track."