NASA signs deal with Lockheed to take astronauts back to moon

Pablo Tucker
March 20, 2020

Six other capsules can be ordered later.

The agency on Monday awarded the Orion Production and Operations Contract (OPOC) to regular collaborator Lockheed Martin.

"With the design and development phase of Orion largely behind us, this new contract will enable us to increase efficiencies, reuse the spacecraft, and bring down the cost of reliably transporting people between earth and the Gateway". The space agency plans to order an additional three ships in fiscal year 2022 for an additional $1.9 billion.

Lockheed Martin and NASA recently announced the completion of the Orion crew and service module being developed for the Artemis I mission, an uncrewed mission to the Moon.

"This contract secures Orion production through the next decade, demonstrating NASA's commitment to establishing a sustainable presence at the moon to bring back new knowledge and prepare for sending astronauts to Mars", NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a news release. The concrete missions that are already planned, which will trigger immediate orders, are Artemis III through V, and that contract is valued at $2.7 billion.

The Orion capsules are also created to be reusable. "Orion is a highly-capable, state-of-the-art spacecraft, designed specifically for deep space missions with astronauts, and an integral part of NASA's infrastructure for Artemis missions and future exploration of the solar system". After the return to the moon, NASA plans to refocus its attention on a crewed mission to Mars.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced his nation's intention to join the United States' Moon to Mars exploration approach, including NASA's Artemis lunar programme. Some interior components, from electronics to seats, from the Orion flying the Artemis 2 mission will be used again on the Orion for Artemis 5. The first manned Artemis II flight is scheduled for 2022. The standalone missions can last up to 21 days; missions that dock on stations such as the Gateway can last longer.

"We have learned a lot about how to design and manufacture a better Orion - such as designing for reusability, using augmented reality and additive manufacturing - and we're applying this to this next series of vehicles", says Mike Hawes, Orion program manager for Lockheed Martin Space. The service module contains the primary propulsion and power system for Orion, but it's not part of the new contract. However, political shifts between the administrations and within the space agency, along with technical problems, have caused a multitude of delays.

It should help NASA save money on production costs. Both programs focus on long-term human missions, so there's bound to be substantial overlap.

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