With the final launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour and only one more launch before the program is retired, NASA officially announced the shuttle's replacement today: the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). How uninspiring of a name is that?
Based on designs created for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, the newly christened MPCV is a dramatically different approach to manned space flight than the shuttle orbiters, focusing on safety and cost-savings over load and capability. It's almost as if NASA skipped the spaceplane phase altogether and continued with Apollo-style spacecraft.
The Lockheed Martin-designed Orion vehicle consists of a crew module sandwiched between a a launch abort system, a service module, and an adapter system. All of this will be placed on top of a large rocket (with more capability than any current rocket) and launched into space.
Unlike the previous Apollo crew vehicles, the MPCV can carry four astronauts for missions as long as 21 days thanks to the roomier 316 cubic-feet of habitable space inside the 690 cubic-feet of pressurized space. The original Orion design could fit up to six astronauts, and the Shuttle carries a crew of six-to-eight.
Compared to the massive shuttle orbiter, the MPCV will only be able to carry small projects with it and will not be able to be used launch large satellites or pieces of the International Space Station, though it will be able to dock with the ISS.
Benefit of the new system compared to the current Shuttle include safety (it's 10 times safer during ascent and entry) and a much lower cost, but the biggest advantage may be in what it can do that the Shuttle can't: exit low earth orbit (LEO).
The shuttle's limited to LEO and was never designed to be flown any farther than a space station orbiting close to earth. The renaming of the Orion to "Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle" is important. Not only will the MPCV offer an alternative to using the Soyuz spacecraft for crew and cargo delivery to the ISS, it can be used as a platform for launching deeper into space.
As laid out in plans for NASA's Constellation program, which was criticized by some, the Obama administration wants to hand over basic cargo and crew transport into space to private companies like SpaceX while NASA focuses on missions further into space, including a trip to Mars.
The MPCV won't be the vehicle that carries our astronauts to Mars (although a modified version could accompany it to the Moon), but as a way of traveling deeper into space to deliver crew and light cargo safely to the Mars-bound vehicle we develop and then back home again.
Ultimately, this crew vehicle isn't as sexy or as exciting as a Shuttle oribter, but with private companies competing heavily in the nearer heavens it's a practical way to make sure astronauts still have a path to space on American-made, American-designed vehicles.
But maybe we can give it a better name, NASA?