By SCOTT "DOC" HOROWITZ
In my astronaut career, I was fortunate to be assigned to four space shuttle missions. I spent about 1,138 hours -- more than 47 days -- in space, traveled 19 million miles and circled the planet more than 740 times. I never got bored gazing down at our beautiful world. Ask any astronaut. He or she will tell you there is only one thrill better than getting a view of your home from orbit, and that is the idea of leaving home and seeing some of the other spectacular sights in the solar system.
I am proud to lead the team responsible for implementing the Vision for Space Exploration, America's long-term strategy for extending our exploration reach back to the moon and onward to Mars and beyond. Our team is working hard to develop the spacecraft and systems that will enable us to accomplish these bold objectives, including our newest spacecraft, Orion.
Named for one of the brightest and most recognizable star formations in the sky, Orion is the central member of a family of spacecraft and launchers that NASA's Constellation Program is developing for the next generation of explorers. Two industry teams spent the last 13 months refining concepts, analyzing requirements and sketching designs for Orion. This week NASA selected one of the teams, Lockheed Martin Corp., based in Bethesda, Md., to build it.
Measuring 16.5 feet in diameter, Orion will have more than 2.5 times the interior volume of the Apollo capsules that carried three-man crews to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those missions lasted only several hours to several days. Orion will be able to carry four astronauts and support missions of up to six months.
Orion resembles Apollo for good reason. Relying on proven technology for our lunar return increases the likelihood of success. Although Orion borrows its shape and aerodynamic performance from Apollo, the new capsule's updated computers, electronics, life support, propulsion and heat protection systems represent a marked improvement over legacy systems.
Astronauts will enjoy a less risky ride to and from space aboard Orion. The winged shuttle orbiter is mounted beside its external fuel tank and boosters for liftoff, but the new crew module will be placed on top of its booster. This will protect it from potentially deadly launch system debris during ascent, and allows the addition of an abort system that can separate crew capsule from the booster in an emergency.
The shuttle is the world's most versatile spacecraft to date. Orion will be even more so. It is designed to fly to the moon, but it also may be used to service the International Space Station. For instance, we may be able to use it to bring the Hubble Space Telescope safely back to Earth in the 2020s, after its stargazing mission is finished. The possibilities seem limitless.
Most important, Orion will assure America's access to space after the shuttle is retired in 2010. NASA plans to fly Orion with a human crew no later than 2014 and to return humans to the moon no later than 2020.
Scott "Doc" Horowitz is a former astronaut and current NASA associate administrator, Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.