First manned test flight of new deep-space capsule likely delayed: NASA


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. The first manned test flight of NASA’s new deep-space Orion capsule faces a likely two-year-year delay until 2023 due to development and budget concerns, officials with the U.S. space agency said on Wednesday.

The capsule, along with its multibillion-dollar heavy lift launcher, are the most expensive parts of a long-term U.S. human space exploration initiative leading toward a crew landing on Mars in the mid-2030s.

NASA had been aiming for its first crew test flight of Orion in August 2021. But on a conference call Wednesday, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot told reporters the agency had lost confidence in that date.

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Given technical, financial and management hurdles the capsule will face during development, he said an April 2023 launch date now seemed more likely.

NASA plans to spend another $6.77 billion between October 2015 and April 2023 for two of the new Orion capsules, which are currently under development by lead contractor Lockheed Martin Corp.

The agency has already has paid $4.7 billion for Orion design and development, Lightfoot said.

He said an unmanned Orion was still scheduled for liftoff in December 2018, carried aloft by a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that is the focus of a separate $7 billion development effort.

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NASA intends to first test an Orion capsule in a lunar orbit, then use it for a mission to rendezvous with a boulder that has been robotically plucked from the surface of an asteroid and positioned into an distant orbit around the moon.

“We’re really trying to build a program,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “Ultimately, we’d like to get where we’re flying these missions about once per year.”

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NASA last year announced an expected year-long schedule slip for the debut flight of the SLS rocket, previously targeted for November 2017.

So far, the agency has not provided cost estimates for any missions or production cost beyond the first test flight of Orion, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a report issued in July.

NASA spent about $9 billion between 2005 and 2010 on a previous human space exploration initiative called Constellation. That included $5.8 billion for an earlier version of Orion.

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by David Adams and Tom Brown)