Engineers on NASA’s multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV) would like to conduct an ascent-abort test before sending their capsule around the Moon on the first flight of the heavy-lift Space Launch System in 2017, but first they must find another $163 million to fund the recently announced flight test of its planetary re-entry system in 2014.

Michael Coats, director of Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the Orion-based deep-space crew vehicle is managed, told the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee Nov. 17 that the program still hasn’t identified the entire $372 million cost of the 2014 flight test (Aerospace DAILY, Nov. 9).

That test, announced earlier this month, will subject the vehicle’s advanced heat shield to temperatures and loads approaching those it will experience on a direct return from the Moon or beyond. Tentative plans call for the test to re-enter at 84% of lunar re-entry speed.

“We’re not going to go into deep space, but we’re going to go way out there and come back in at a high speed to test a lot of things we can’t test with a normal LEO re-entry,” Coats testified, adding that the re-entry will test 10 of the 16 items on the MPCV program’s high-risk list.

Coats confirmed that the capsule, which Lockheed Martin started developing under the old Constellation program and will continue under the new MPCV approach, will be launched on a Delta IV rocket. Lockheed Martin plans to refurbish the first ground test article for the flight test, and had been considering the Delta IV as the launch vehicle.

“We got a pretty reasonable deal from the contractor on that rocket,” Coats said.

Even so, the MPCV program hasn’t identified the full cost of the test in its budget, and needs to find $163 million more, Coats said. Providing funding is available, the program also would like to fly an ascent-abort test in about 2016, he said.

“The earlier you can test things and discover problems, the more money you’re going to save,” Coats said.

Robert Cabana, director of Kennedy Space Center, said the 2014 test flight will give recovery crews based at his Florida launch center a chance to check out procedures they are developing to recover the capsule at sea.

NASA’s going-in plan for the 2017 flight would use an early version of the SLS to send an unmanned capsule on a lunar flyaround to conduct additional testing of the thermal protection system. A second flight with a crew is scheduled in 2021.

Administrator Charles Bolden told the panel that funding for the SLS/Orion development to support those dates will be reflected in the fiscal 2013 budget request NASA submits in February.