NASA, Lockheed Martin Sign Deal for More Orion Spacecraft

NASA, Lockheed Martin Sign Deal for More Orion Spacecraft

NASA and Lockheed Martin signed a contract today for as many as 12 Orion spacecraft designed to take people to the Moon and Mars. The agreement is for NASA to pay $2.7 billion for a set of three, and then $1.9 billion for the next three, with up to six more that may be ordered through September 2030.  The contract will be managed by Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Texas. That won praise from the state’s two Senators and the Congressman representing JSC all of whom had strongly criticized NASA for an earlier award to Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

On August 16, NASA announced that Marshall would take the lead in overseeing development of lunar landers for the Artemis program.  Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, and Congressman Brian Babin, all Republicans, sent a strongly worded letter to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine objecting to the choice of Marshall over JSC.

The lunar lander award to Marshall was widely viewed as a political move to win support of Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee that funds NASA.

Today’s announcement similarly is viewed as largely political and Cruz, Cornyn and Babin were each quoted in NASA’s press release.

Cruz said he is pleased NASA Administrator Bridenstine “heeded my calls and is taking significant steps to ensure that Johnson continues to grow with the exciting future of manned exploration that lies ahead. More needs to be done, and I look forward to production ramping up in the weeks and months to come and to more opportunities with NASA.” Babin found it “encouraging to see that this program is moving along as it should be” and praised the “brilliant minds and extraordinary leadership” of the JSC team.  Cornyn commended “the Trump Administration for recognizing the importance and tradition of Houston as the center of human spaceflight and exploring the next frontier.”

Cruz chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee’s space subcommittee, which oversees NASA.  Babin is the top Republican on its House counterpart. Cornyn and Babin both are up for reelection next year.

The Orion Production and Operations Contract (OPOC) “will focus on reusability and building a sustainable presence on the lunar surface” according to NASA’s press release.

NASA has bought two Orions so far for the first two Orion missions, Artemis-I and Artemis-II.  Artemis-I is a test flight and will not carry a crew.  Launch is expected in early 2021. Artemis-2 will be the first crewed flight of Orion, with launch in 2022 or 2023.

On July 20, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, Vice President Pence spoke at Kennedy Space Center next to the Orion spacecraft that will be used for Artemis-I.

Vice President Pence speaks at Kennedy Space Center, July 20, 2019, next to the Orion spacecraft that will be used for Artemis-I. Credit: @VP tweet

With today’s announcement, NASA is ordering three more, including the spacecraft that will be used to take astronauts to the Moon in 2024 and land on the surface for the first time since the Apollo program.  Orion cannot go to the lunar surface itself.  It will take crews to a small space station, Gateway, in lunar orbit. The crews will transfer there to landers that will take them down to the surface and back. Orion will then bring them home.

NASA has not laid out a detailed plan for lunar missions after that, but they will be launched on the Space Launch System (SLS) and NASA has said the launch rate for SLS will be about one per year.  Thus it is surprising that so many Orions will be needed in the next decade especially since Lockheed Martin plans to reuse some of them.  The vehicle used for the Artemis III will be reflown as Artemis VI, for example.  The contract says they must be ordered, not delivered, by September 2030, however so these could extend well into that decade.

Another unusual feature is that the next six spacecraft will be procured through cost-plus contracts.  They are typically used for development rather than production. The second six, however, will be fixed price.  NASA said “the cost incentives on the cost-plus-incentive-fee orders are designed to motivate favorable cost performance during early OPOC production and drive substantially lower prices for any subsequent firm-fixed-price orders issued under this contract.”

Orion has been in development since 2006 as part of President George W. Bush’s Constellation program. Although Constellation was cancelled, Congress directed NASA to build a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and it retained Orion.  Eric Berger, a reporter for Ars Technica, estimated in February that NASA had spent $16 billion on the program at that time.  The appropriation for FY2019 is $1.35 billion.

The statement today did not give the price for all 12, only the next six, a total of $4.6 billion.

NASA also said that the contract would support production of the Gateway because some Orion components can be used for it.

Vice President Pence announced the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon on March 26.  NASA is still waiting to see if Congress will provide the additional $1.6 billion it requested in May to get the program going in FY2020.  It has not revealed how much it will cost through 2024, but Bridenstine said it would be $20-30 billion in addition to funding for NASA’s other programs.  That would be $4-6 billion on top of the roughly $21 billion NASA is getting now.

A lot of skepticism about achieving the 2024 goal was evident at a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing last week on the status of SLS, Orion and associated ground systems.


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