NASA formally announces replacement astronaut vehicle

NASA formally confirmed on Tuesday that it will replace the Orion program with a new mission and a new name: the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV.

President Obama had already directed the space agency to change its focus from the Bush-era Orion approach, which targeted the moon, in favor of public-private partnerships featuring more robotic missions and destinations deeper into space. And Lockheed Martin Corp. was already working on the MPCV. NASA's decision ends a months-long struggle between Congress and the White House.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved $1.1 billion to work on Orion/MPCV, and the cash could be included in any upcoming budget bill.

"We are committed to human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and look forward to developing the next generation of systems to take us there," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.

"The NASA Authorization Act lays out a clear path forward for us by handing off transportation to the International Space Station to our private sector partners, so we can focus on deep space exploration," Bolden said. "As we aggressively continue our work on a heavy lift launch vehicle, we are moving forward with an existing contract to keep development of our new crew vehicle on track."

The space shuttle Endeavour is currently on its last mission, and is docked to the International Space Station. The very last shuttle mission is scheduled to blast off July 8. After that, NASA will rely on Russian transports to get astronauts to and from space until the United States can get its next generation of space transport off the ground.

A Russian Soyuz capsule landed on the steppes of Kazakhstan earlier Tuesday, delivering three astronauts including American Catherine "Cady" Coleman.

Lockheed Martin has continued its work on the capsule, which can carry four astronauts and is sometimes called "Apollo on steroids." But Tuesday's announcement makes the agreement formal.

The cone-shaped capsule looks uncannily like the 1960s-era landers that dropped early astronauts into the ocean. "The MPCV may resemble its Apollo-era predecessors, but its technology and capability are light years apart. The MPCV features dozens of technology advancements and innovations that have been incorporated into the spacecraft's subsystem and component design," NASA says on its website.

Lockheed Martin hopes for an uncrewed launch in 2013 and intends to try it out on astronauts by 2016.