Lockheed Martin on Thursday won NASA's multibillion-dollar nod to build the Orion crew exploration vehicle, a spaceship with a look and a mission that echoes the space agency's giant leap to the moon in the 1960s.
The announcement kicks off an effort to produce spacecraft that would replace NASA's fleet of space shuttles, due for retirement in 2010. NASA's timetable calls for the cone-shaped Orion ships to bring cargo or up to six crew members to the international space station by 2014, and carry up to four astronauts to the moon and back by 2020.
For 13 months, two high-profile aerospace teams — one led by Lockheed Martin, the other led by Northrop Grumman and The Boeing Co. — have worked on paper proposals to fit NASA's specifications. Now it's up to Lockheed Martin to turn the concept into a reality.
"This is the first human-rated spacecraft to take astronauts from the Earth into orbit that we have developed in over 30 years," Scott Horowitz, NASA's associate administrator for exploration systems, said during Thursday's briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
The contract calls for the Lockheed Martin team to be paid $3.9 billion through 2013 for developing the Orion and delivering two spacecraft for space station deliveries. NASA estimates that another $4 billion-plus may be paid out through 2019 for follow-up purchases and services.
Some outside observers have said the total cost of the project could balloon to $18 billion or more over the course of the next decade — which is roughly how much it cost to build the Apollo command and service modules in inflation-adjusted dollars. In any case, the Orion contract will represent a significant chunk of the $104 billion NASA has said it will cost to return to the moon and set the stage for further space exploration.
Along with Orion, NASA is funding the development of a new family of rockets called the Ares and a next-generation lunar lander — all drawing upon technology from the shuttle program as well as the Apollo era. The Orion's similarities to the 1960s-era craft led NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to describe the larger program, called Project Constellation, as "Apollo on steroids."
Doug Cooke, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems, said the competing proposals for Orion were judged on the basis of mission suitability, cost and past performance. However, he declined to specify exactly why they chose Lockheed Martin over the Northrop-Boeing team, saying they still had to "debrief" the winners and the losers.
"This is a design that is based on known capabilities," Cooke said of Lockheed Martin's design. "We know that this can be built, so there are some differences there, perhaps."
Taking a lead role in the development of a manned spacecraft may be more of a stretch for Lockheed Martin. Historically, the company has been more involved with NASA's unmanned space missions, while Northrop Grumman and Boeing trace their corporate lineages back to the manned spacecraft of the 1960s.
Upgrading earlier technologies
NASA says Orion is borrowing from Project Apollo and the shuttle program to avoid the risks associated with developing an entirely new spaceship.
"There were great technological pushes to make those systems fly," Jeff Hanley, NASA's program manager for Project Constellation, said of NASA's past spacecraft. "We're not in that situation with the Orion. ... We're not pushing the edge of the envelope in terms of designing and building this system."
The 25-ton, 16.5-foot-wide (5-meter-wide) Orion craft would be lofted into orbit atop an Ares 1 rocket, which will use engines adapted from the shuttle's solid rocket boosters as well as the Apollo era's Saturn 5 rocket. A heavy-lift Ares 5 rocket would be used to put unmanned payloads into orbit — including a yet-to-be-developed lunar lander and an upper stage for the trip to the moon.
For lunar journeys, the Orion would rendezvous with the earth departure stage and the lunar lander in Earth orbit, then head out for the moon. The lander would undock from the Orion, descend to the lunar surface for a visit of up to a week, then lift off and redock for the return trip home.
The Orion might splash down at sea, as the Apollo capsule did — or it might descend to a touchdown on land, with that descent slowed by parachutes and perhaps cushioned by airbags.
The deal that NASA struck with Lockheed Martin has an option for the production of two crew vehicles and three cargo vehicles per year, Hanley said.
Winners and losers
All 10 of NASA's centers will be involved in the Orion project. Lockheed Martin's corporate partners in the development effort include Aerojet, Hamilton Sundstrand, Honeywell and Orbital Sciences as well as United Space Alliance, which is the prime contractor for the space shuttle program.
""We are honored by the trust that NASA has placed in the Lockheed Martin team for this historic and vital step forward in human space exploration," Bob Stevens, Lockheed Martin's chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer, said in a written statement. "Our entire team is fully committed to supporting NASA as we join together to help make the vision for space exploration a reality."
In March, Lockheed Martin said it would have working on the Orion project. Half of them would be based in Houston, near NASA's Johnson Space Center, where much of the engineering work would be done. The other half would be spread out at NASA sites in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. Final assembly of the Orion vehicle would take place at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
In the wake of Thursday's announcement, Northrop Grumman said it was still hoping to win a role in some other aspect of the Constellation program. "We're disappointed, obviously, and we're looking forward to moving on to the next part of exploration," Northrop Grumman spokesman Brooks McKinney told MSNBC.com.
NASA's Horowitz noted that other pieces of Project Constellation were yet to be put out for bid, including the lunar lander, the earth departure stage and the heavy-lift launch vehicle. "Orion is one element of what Constellation has to accomplish. ... There are tremendous opportunities in the future," he said.
Hanley told MSNBC.com that the heavy-lift launcher would likely be the next major component to go out for bidding.
Project Constellation already has plenty of critics: Some say it's not worth tens of billions of dollars to retrace Apollo's steps to the moon, while others say the program is structured to follow an "old space" business model that virtually ensures cost overruns.
The two teams that competed for the Orion program were led by aerospace giants well-known to NASA, rather than "new space" entrepreneurs. Boeing has been the prime U.S. contractor for the space station, while Boeing and Lockheed Martin are partners in the United Space Alliance. Lockheed Martin was the prime contractor the last time NASA tried to have a shuttle successor built, but its $1.3 billion X-33 project ended in failure five years ago.
"New space" consultant Charles Lurio told MSNBC.com in advance of Thursday's announcement that it would be a "mind-numbingly irrelevant event."
"It follows the same pattern of high-cost development that was fine for Apollo but has not created anything affordable or sustainable," Lurio said.
Among the other concerns raised recently:
- In a report last month, the Government Accountability Office counseled NASA to commit funds only to the preliminary design phase of the Orion project (PDF file). The GAO said that the space agency should go slow until it came up with more precise requirements and more realistic cost estimates.
- Space scientists have complained that the back-to-the-moon effort was sucking hundreds of millions of dollars away from other areas of the NASA budget. During a congressional hearing earlier this year, Wesley Huntress, a former NASA executive who is now at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, said the effort was less like Apollo on steroids and more like "Apollo on food stamps."
- The Space Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for "new space" ventures, called on NASA to shift billions of dollars away from the Orion project and instead beef up the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, which has set aside $500 million for an entrepreneurial approach to resupplying the space station.
This month, NASA split that $500 million between two fledgling aerospace companies, California-based SpaceX and Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler. In contrast to NASA's traditional "cost-plus" contractual arrangements, those two companies will be paid incrementally as they reach milestones leading up to demonstration flights in 2009.
If the COTS program is successful, another competition will be conducted, with the winners being given contracts to transfer crew and cargo between Earth and the space station in the post-2010 period — taking over from the space shuttle fleet. This two-track approach to NASA's future spaceflight needs could raise the prospect of future competition between the COTS winners and Lockheed Martin.
More future missions
Hanley said he hoped COTS was successful — because NASA would prefer not to use the costlier, more capable Orion crew exploration vehicle, or CEV, to resupply the space station. "The CEV is being designed to go to the moon and other parts beyond low Earth orbit. So in that respect ... the CEV's way overdesigned to do an ISS mission," he said.
Elon Musk, founder and chief executive officer of SpaceX, agreed with that analysis. He said using the Orion to service the space station would be like using a Mack truck for jobs better-suited to a light pickup truck. In Musk's view, the "pickup trucks" would include SpaceX's Dragon spaceship.
"We're very confident that we will be able to relieve Orion of the burden of servicing the space station," Musk told MSNBC.com.
That's not to say that the Orion would be used exclusively for moon missions. Hanley said the Orion could play a role in more ambitious trips as well, including flights to Mars and asteroids.
"We hope to do any number of missions that people haven't even thought of yet ... This is the system for the next generation," he said.