Lockheed Martin Corp. on Monday showed off a test version of the Orion spacecraft, which was initially meant to return humans to the moon but may wind up being an escape vehicle for the International Space Station or taking astronauts beyond Earth orbit.
The company also unveiled a cavernous test facility at its Waterton Canyon site south of Denver, where full-size mock-ups of the space station and the front section of the Orion can be used to practice docking maneuvers.
Orion was originally part of President George W. Bush's $100 billion moon mission, called Constellation. President Barack Obama canceled Constellation last year, saying the space program would instead focus on more advanced rocket technology.
Obama revived the Orion portion of the project two months later, with administration officials saying it would be the space station's escape vehicle.
NASA is now considering at least two roles for future manned spacecraft, including servicing the space station in low Earth orbit and going on longer, more distant missions.
"Orion is going to evolve from what it was under the previous Constellation program into what it needs to become as part of the multipurpose crew vehicle," NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said.
Lockheed Martin officials were more ambitious Monday, touting Orion as America's next generation spacecraft that could first explore the far side of the moon then land humans on asteroids and eventually take them to one of the moons of Mars, where they could control robotic instruments on the surface.
Orion includes a module for crew and cargo, a service module for propulsion, electrical power and other requirements, and a launch-abort system to carry the capsule to safety if the booster rocket fails. NASA successfully tested the launch-abort system two weeks ago at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
Lockheed Martin is NASA's prime contractor for the Orion project. The company said it built the $35 million, 41,000-square-foot test facility, called the Space Operations Simulation Center, at company expense.
The first Orion capsule is being assembled in another building at Lockheed Martin's Waterton Canyon site. It will be used for ground testing and could possibly be launched into a suborbital test flight, said James Bray, Lockheed's crew and service module director.
Bray said the test results will be used in the engineering of the first Orion capsule to fly in space. Work on that capsule is expected to start in August.
Many of Orion's components can be re-used in subsequent flights, including some electronic systems, Bray said. The spaceship itself won't be reused because of the tremendous forces it endures on liftoff and re-entry, he said.
The first orbital space flight of an Orion capsule is expected in 2013, said John Karas, vice president and general manager for human space flight for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter and Sen. Michael Bennet, Colorado Democrats who pressed Obama to salvage the Orion project, said they were confident the spacecraft will fly, but neither discussed specifics in brief remarks at the dedication ceremony for the test building.
"The White House and the Congress both recognize the importance of this program," Perlmutter said.
Lockheed Martin employs nearly 10,000 people in Colorado.
NASA fact sheet on Orion: http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/491544main_orion_book_web.pdf