NASA awards Lockheed Martin long term Orion contract


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The never-ending boondoggle: NASA today awarded Lockheed Martin a long term contract to build as many as twelve future Orion capsules.

OPOC is an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract that includes a commitment to order a minimum of six and a maximum of 12 Orion spacecraft, with an ordering period through Sept. 30, 2030. Production and operations of the spacecraft for six to 12 missions will establish a core set of capabilities, stabilize the production process, and demonstrate reusability of spacecraft components.

“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,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “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.” [emphasis mine]

I honestly don’t know how NASA can commit to building these Orion capsules, when Congress has yet to fund them. I guess NASA has decided that Congress and elections are irrelevant, that they — as our anointed rulers in Washington — can make these decisions unilaterally, at their own whim.

One quote in the press release really stood out to me:

“As the only vehicle capable of deep space exploration, the Orion spacecraft is critical to America’s continued leadership,” said Rep. Brian Babin [R-Texas].

What a crock. Orion is pork, period. It is simple too small for any deep space mission, no matter what lies NASA tries to tell us. It will get us nowhere.

All this contract does is justify the existence of the Johnson Space Center, which really has no purpose since the retirement of the shuttle and the decision to fly future astronauts on privately built spacecraft. Having Orion to “manage” will convince people that the workers at Johnson are doing something, when really almost everything of importance will be done by Lockheed Martin.

This contract is also another component in NASA’s political strategy to get as many players in the space business committed to both Artemis and Gateway. Pretty soon they will have everyone on board, with big tax dollar bribes.

Meanwhile, what they are building won’t accomplish anything, and will strand us in lunar orbit for decades, while other countries land and learn how to build bases on other worlds.

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10 comments

  • Jason Hillyer

    Twelve…. that is truly hilarious

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “I honestly don’t know how NASA can commit to building these Orion capsules, when Congress has yet to fund them. I guess NASA has decided that Congress and elections are irrelevant, that they — as our anointed rulers in Washington — can make these decisions unilaterally, at their own whim.

    This may not be quite so risky, as Congress insisted upon having both SLS and Orion. It may be safe for NASA to assume that Congress intends a few missions for SLS and its Orion partner payload. Otherwise Congress would not have insisted upon developing them. Even if they are only pork projects, Congress likely will want to continue the pork.

    On the other hand, if Congress continues to shortchange NASA in order to spite Trump, then perhaps NASA has overstepped its bounds.

    I cannot wait for commercial space to take the lead in space operations. Once that happens, space politics will not have as much affect on our hard-earned tax dollars, as the majority of decisions — and the politics that goes with them — will be internal to the space companies.

  • jaysin

    What happened to your assertion that SLS and Orion would only fly 1-3 times, Robert? It’s looking mighty foolish now.

  • Scott M.

    From a strictly engineering point of view, is there anything about Orion that makes it able to do things that the Crew Dragon or the Starliner couldn’t do? I imagine their heatshields might need to be beefed up.

  • Jaysin: That was my hope, as SLS and Orion are an enormous waste of money and badly designed for any effort to explore the solar system. It is going to stunt the U.S.’s ability in space.

  • pzatchok

    jaysin

    Don’t count those chickens yet.

    The first of any part of that whole system has not even flown yet.

  • Kyle

    Not funded by congress.
    Up to 12.
    Min of 6.
    2 for flights 4 for museums?

  • Dick Eagleson

    Jaysin: It very much remains to be seen who’s going to look foolish here. Personally, I think our host is being, if anything, over-generous to assume more than one SLS-Orion mission. I attribute that to his tendency to see politics as less fluid and subject to sharp discontinuities than I. But that’s more a matter of degree than one of kind. Neither of us sees any consequential future for either SLS or Orion.

    The signing of a government procurement contract isn’t really like the signing of a contract in the private sector. For one thing, there tends to be non- or, at least, not-very-negotiable cancellation and termination language in such pacts. In 1945, a lot of new and follow-on aircraft and naval procurement contracts were signed based on the expectation that WW2 was going to last until at least 1947, possibly even 1948. The people on both sides of such contracts entered into them equally ignorant of the existence of the Manhattan Project, which was to have, shall we say, a non-trivial influence on the future need for all those contracted ships and planes. Accordingly, most of those contracts were canceled following Japan’s capitulation.

    The same, I think, will, in the end, happen to this contract. The main difference here is that, while both sets of the signatories are very much aware of the latter-day manned spaceflight equivalent of the Manhattan Project – namely, SpaceX’s Super Heavy-Starship (SHS) – both are also, for reasons of their own, pretending it doesn’t exist or even that it won’t work.

    In the case of NASA, I think Administrator Bridenstine is playing a long game – or at least a longer game than the other players. He needs to at least pretend that the Program of Record – Artemis – is going to proceed as announced in order to humor the NASA lifers who have never accommodated themselves to the idea of eventual commercial dominance of manned spaceflight, and of the parochial political figures in Congress who want pork whether or not what the funds buy is useful.

    The latter two camps are, I think, doomed to be disappointed. SHS will work, will work at least approximately on the schedule SpaceX expects and will rapidly obsolete the entire Artemis architecture as currently envisioned. The political fallout from that will be considerable, but will not favor either the NASA-uber-alles lifers at Marshall nor the NASA pork caucus in Congress.

  • Edward

    I look at this slightly differently than Dick Eagleson. NASA tends to anticipate contingencies and prepare for them. We can look at this in different ways. Here are three:

    1) Artemis (Orion-SLS) is the baseline for all NASA planning with Starship-Super Heavy and New Glenn being possibilities that may or may not become operational.

    2) Commercial space is the baseline but Orion needs to be ready as the contingency that neither becomes operational.

    3) Neither Starship nor New Glenn will be available for the 2024 deadline, and the Artemis option remains NASA’s baseline for the decade. Afterward, commercial space takes the lead in Lunar exploration.

    NASA certainly cannot depend upon commercial manned space to get to the Moon, because NASA does not have control over these potential spacecraft, so they look at this in the first way. NASA must keep the Artemis baseline until another option becomes available.

    I suspect the third scenario is the most likely to happen. Despite my enthusiasm that SpaceX does development in a rapid manner, “rapid” is relative. Even SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell (president and COO) has suggested that development tends to take twice as long as Musk expects. SpaceX hopes to have Starship operational within three years. If it takes twice as long to get Starship operational, then it may not be available until 2025 or later.

    Should SLS become operational in time for a 2024 Moon landing*, then SLS may survive several years and six Orions may not be too many. If Artemis beats Starship to the Moon, then there may be some momentum that delays Starship from becoming NASA’s primary transportation spacecraft.

    The only scenario that I see in which Starship does not become an important spacecraft for the next couple of decades is if it fails to become operational. If Starship becomes operational, then SLS will certainly stifle NASA’s lead in space exploration, as several Starship launches each year will be likely, while SLS can only launch once every couple of years.

    Although Starship seems to have enough delta v to land on the Moon, after refueling in low Earth orbit, I am not sure that it can launch again from the lunar surface without refueling. I haven’t searched much for it, but I don’t know of a plan for using Starship to go to the Moon and back again without lunar refueling.

    Here is an article that presents a scenario in which Starship lands on the Moon then launches to lunar orbit for refueling before returning to Earth, but I suspect that another lunar orbit refueling would be needed prior to landing (perhaps both lunar orbit refuelings could be by the same Starship tanker):
    https://www.teslarati.com/spacex-starship-moon-landing-orbital-refueling-nasa/
    As such, an expendable Starship landing on the Moon with zero propellant for a possible return to Earth would easily break the record for landed mass by a factor of 10-20, while a Starship landing with enough delta V to simply return to lunar orbit – let alone land back on Earth – could easily up that to 30-50x.

    Other than the Blue Moon lander, I have yet to come across a manned spacecraft launched by New Glenn, whether designed by Blue Origin or anyone else.

    * SLS has been slipping year for year for a while. With Trump’s new urgency and the recent changes in NASA management, this schedule slip may stop. Or not, and SLS never launches.

  • pzatchok

    If SLS turned out to be JUST what was originally proposed I would have been happy with it.
    It also would have flown years ago if it had used all or as many as possible of the old Shuttle parts Like engines, fuel tanks, life support systems, and the side boosters. Basically everything but the shuttle air-frame.

    But why buy a simple pick-up when for just a few billion more you could have the biggest monster truck of all time. obviously it doesn’t have a real job to do but you’ll find one for it after its built.

    Pretty much just like the shuttle.

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