HOUSTON — Bolstered by the mid-September agreement between the White House and Congress to rev up development of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), Lockheed Martin is moving out with development, test and production of the Orion/Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) that would lift off atop the evolvable mega-rocket for piloted deep-space missions.

A 70-metric-ton version of the eventual, much larger SLS, perhaps fitted with a Boeing Delta 4 upper stage, could sling astronauts around the Moon in 2016, under a test flight scenario that Lockheed Martin has discussed with NASA. The demonstration mission would accelerate plans for the first human mission of the four-person MPCV by five years.

“As soon as possible, we will transition to flying our test flights on early versions of the SLS,” says Laurence Price, Lockheed Martin’s Orion deputy program manager. “We already know a lot about this vehicle, its environment, load conditions and trajectory. So we are accommodating the unique capability of the launch vehicle into the design of the Orion/MPCV. We are already converging on how this vehicle will fly.”

In a series of Sept. 14 announcements, NASA’s congressional supporters and White House officials brought a potential end to a standoff over the agency’s post-shuttle, human spaceflight future. They featured pledges of $18 billion through 2017 to kick off development of a 130-metric-ton SLS to dispatch the Orion/MPCV capsule on a flexible path of exploration, reaching an asteroid by 2025 and Mars a decade or so later.

With $6 billion of the agreed-upon total, NASA would ready the capsule for a series of milestone flight tests, beginning with a mid-2013 two-orbit unpiloted mission. The flight would boost Orion to an altitude of 5,000 nm for a steep, high-velocity re-entry to characterize the performance of the ablative heat shield and parachute descent and ocean recovery.

Lockheed Martin has reserved a Delta 4 Heavy for the demanding unpiloted flight from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, though the choice of launchers is under evaluation.

A second test of the Orion/MPCV’s Launch Abort System would follow a year later. Also lofted from Kennedy, the spacecraft would rise atop a Peacekeeper missile first-stage solid-fuel rocket motor to 50,000 ft. for release of the unpiloted capsule in a test of the abort system guidance and navigation controls at maximum aerodynamic pressure. The abort system executed a successful unpiloted launch pad abort demonstration in May 2010 at White Sands, N.M.

If funding permits, Lockheed Martin would like to leverage the integration and performance results from the 2013 flight for a piloted circumnavigation of the Moon in 2016.

“We think it could be like Apollo 8; it could go out to the Moon and come back again,” Price says, referring to the six-day, December 1968 mission that set the stage for the Apollo 11 landing that followed seven months later.

“We are trying to collaborate with SLS,” he says. “We’re trying not to be two separate programs that are on parallel paths. We are trying to find benefits for each to the maximum extent possible.”

Lockheed Martin’s work with the Orion/MPCV began with a 2006 NASA contract award, when the capsule was designated as a cornerstone of the George W. Bush administration’s 2004 Constellation back-to-the-Moon initiative. The capsule was to launch atop the two-stage Ares 1 rocket into Earth orbit, where the astronauts would either dock with the space station or rendezvous with an Earth-departure stage and lander injected into orbit by the larger Ares V for the lunar journey.

Unlike the Ares launchers, Orion survived Constellation’s 2010 cancellation by President Barack Obama. The spacecraft emerged first as a prospective life boat for the International Space Station, then under congressional prodding as the crew capsule for deep-space missions.

Obama directed NASA to prepare for a mission to a yet-to-be selected asteroid by 2025 as a precursor to exploration of the Martian environs a decade or so later. An Orion/MPCV ground-test vehicle is scheduled to complete more than two months of acoustic testing at Lockheed Martin facilities near Denver by early November. The capsule will be reconfigured and shipped to NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., early next year to undergo water-landing evaluations.

A second capsule prime structure, currently in fabrication at Michoud, La., will ship to Kennedy next year, where it will undergo final assembly in the Operations and Checkout Facility as the 2013 flight-test vehicle.

Nationwide, the Orion/MPCV program employs nearly 2,700 workers. Another 300-400 will be added as the test capsule reaches Kennedy.