NASA's hopes of manned flights before 2014 are dashed as Orion programme hits first hold-up

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NASA internal planning, official's comments and contractor expectations suggest much touted goal of manned flights of new crew vehicle Orion before 2014 are unrealistic

NASA will fail to meet its goal of flying manned Orion missions before 2014, as the first delay emerges for the new spaceship's development timetable just a week after its prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, was selected.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin had wanted Orion's development accelerated because the four-year gap between the Space Shuttle's 2010 retirement and the new spacecraft's planned 2014 operational debut was deemed unacceptable. The prime contractor selection process was even adjusted for changes introduced by NASA to accelerate Orion.

However NASA internal planning documents obtained by Flight International, and recent comments by Constellation and Lockheed Martin programme officials, reveal that this goal is unrealistic.

In an interview with Flight International last week, Lockheed Project Orion business development manager Patrick McKenzie said that the "requirements review (SRR) should slip into the first quarter of next year". NASA's plan had been for Orion's SRR to occur in the fourth quarter of 2006.

While McKenzie was sure his company could deliver the Orion for a 2012 manned flight, at the 31 August contractor selection announcement Project Orion office manager Caris Hatfeld said "a full and final" Ares I test was unlikely before 2012 in order to complete the launcher's upper stage and its Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne J-2X engine. That 2012 test flight will not be manned.

The leaked documents and corroborating NASA sources describe a timetable where the Ares I-1 test would occur in 2009, followed by the 2012 flight, which is now designated the Orbital Flight Test (OFT)-1. NASA had spoken of Atmospheric Demonstration Flight Tests (ADFT), but this designation seems to have been abandoned. The first manned flight is OFT-3, which is planned for April, May or June 2014.

When asked about Hatfield's and Constellation programme manager Jeffrey Hanley's ambiguous 31 August comments about testing, NASA said: "The test programme is still in review, which is why [Hatfield and Hanley] were circumspect. We need to see how the new prime contractor's detailed schedule fits with rest of the programme test plan."

The leaked NASA documents have the system design review, which follows SRR, by May 2007 the preliminary design review by March 2008, and the critical design review in the second quarter of 2009.

Blog: 
Read Rob Coppinger's blog about the first delay to NASA's Project Orion and the realities of manned space programmes