NASA has escape plan for space station astronauts


NASA may be able to send a new vessel to the International Space Station within three years to provide astronauts aboard the orbiting outpost an emergency escape, Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. said Thursday.

The Orion capsule would not have to be rated to carry humans and would only have to comply with safety requirements for vehicles visiting the station and those that return astronauts to Earth, Bolden told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in Washington.

“That gives us a domestically produced return vehicle on the International Space Station in three years,” Bolden said during a hearing on NASA‘s budget request for fiscal 2011, which starts Oct. 1. “It also relieves some of the pressure from some of the commercial vendors to try to deliver a vehicle that has the human-rated capability in a shorter period of time.”

President Obama announced in February that he would end NASA‘s Constellation program, developed under the George W. Bush administration, which would have built rockets and spacecraft for a return to the moon by 2020.

Instead, Obama directed NASA to focus on developing rocket systems that might eventually take humans into deep space and help private companies build vessels to carry astronauts to the space station.

The president‘s plan has drawn criticism from Democratic and Republican lawmakers in states with NASA operations. Last week, Obama announced that part of the Constellation program, the Orion capsule, was being revived to provide astronauts an emergency escape from the station and reduce U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz vehicles when the space shuttle program ends this year.

Orion is part of a goal to use spacecraft built by entrepreneurial companies to carry crews and cargo to and from the station. Lockheed Martin Corp., of Bethesda, Md., is Orion‘s prime contractor.

Letting such companies develop a space ferry would allow NASA to focus on developing a vessel that can carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit to destinations such as Mars, Bolden said.