The Orion crew exploration vehicle looks set to return not only as an escape capsule but also as a beyond low Earth orbit spacecraft according to NASA administrator Charles Bolden

In today’s Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing Bolden said that Orion would become a programme of incremental improvement to realise a spacecraft that can conduct missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO)

On 1 February this year Orion was effectively cancelled by president Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2011 (starting 1 October 2010) NASA budget and then on 15 April Obama declared that the Lockheed Martin developed spacecraft would be an escape capsule. But Obama’s plan for NASA also envisages human missions beyond the Moon to asteroids and Mars

Now Bolden appears to have given back to Orion the mission it was to have originally, going beyond LEO

Bolden also indicated that he expected Orion to be able to begin operation as an escape capsule in three years, long before any commercial provider. He said he saw the likes of Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Dragon capsule as a longer term but cheaper prospect

This would seem to be a blow to the hopes of those companies planning to be a part of NASA’s $6 billion commercial crew programme. In particular SpaceX which has stated it could deliver an ISS crew transport vehicle three years after being given the go-ahead