Since the Obama Administration proposed in February to cut the U.S. National Aeronautic and Space Admin.’s (NASA) Constellation program from the 2011 federal budget (see short.compositesworld.com/b6Y7whZp), space industry observers considered NASA’s bid to build Orion, a new vehicle that could ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and return them to the Moon by 2020, was all but dead. But in an April 15 speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, President Obama granted Orion at least a partial reprieve, proposing that Lockheed Martin (Littleton, Colo.) continue its development for use as an emergency escape vehicle in place of the Russian Soyuz capsule now used as the ISS “lifeboat.” Technology developed for Orion would contribute knowledge to future Mars-mission crew vehicle development efforts (see HPC's "Focus on Design" feature about the Orion heat shield, under "Editor's Picks," at right). The President also committed to study a single heavy-lift launch vehicle in place of the canceled Ares V, with a Mars mission in view. A final design would be selected in 2015.
Meanwhile, NASA will retire its Space Shuttle fleet and rely on Russian crew shuttle capsules and launch equipment for its low-Earth-orbit missions, until such time that emerging commercial ventures can provide “space taxis” and launch equipment able to ferry U.S. astronauts, equipment and supplies to the ISS.
Toward that end, Lockheed Martin has already joined with Alliant Techsystems (ATK, Minneapolis, Minn.) to offer future launch services, using upgraded and modernized versions of flight-proven Athena I and II rockets, which became operational in 1995 and have flown seven times. (Athena II carried the Lunar Prospector to the moon in 1998 and remains the only commercially developed launch vehicle to fly a lunar mission.)
ATK spokesman George Torres says new-generation vehicles will be fabricated primarily with carbon/epoxy composite materials, using filament-winding technology, with carbon/phenolic exit cones. The resulting two-stage Athena Ic and three-stage Athena IIc reportedly will be capable of low Earth orbit and Moon missions, beginning in 2012. Designed to provide reliable access to space for small payloads (less than 4,000 lb/1,818 kg), the Athena vehicles, says Torres, are not intended to replace NASA’s Ares I.