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NASA buys 3 Orion capsules from Lockheed Martin for $2 billion

Nice work if you can get it! Earlier this week NASA awarded Lockheed Martin a new contract worth $1.99 billion to build three more Orion capsules for its Artemis program.

This order marks the second three missions under the agency’s Orion Production and Operations Contract (OPOC), an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contract for up to 12 vehicles. A breakout of these orders includes:

  • 2019: NASA initiates OPOC IDIQ and orders three Orion spacecraft for Artemis missions III-V.
  • 2022: NASA orders three additional Orion spacecraft missions for Artemis VI-VIII for $1.99 billion.
  • In the future: NASA can order an additional six Orion missions.

Under OPOC, Lockheed Martin and NASA have reduced the costs on Orion by 50% per vehicle on Artemis III through Artemis V, compared to vehicles built during the design and development phase. The vehicles built for Artemis VI, VII and VIII will see an additional 30% cost reduction.

Lawdy me! They’ve reduced the price! Lockheed Martin is only charging NASA three-quarters of a billion dollars per capsule on this new contract (after NASA spent about $18 billion for the development of the first six capsules– that’s $3 billion each). And Lockheed Martin will only charge about a half billion per capsule for future capsules! My heart be still.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is designing, testing, building, and will likely launch its reusable Starship manned spacecraft, which could launch about 10 Orion capsules on each launch, for about $10 billion total. Once flying the expected cost per launch will likely be much less than $100 million, with SpaceX claiming it could be as low as $2 million. Even if you add the development cost for these launches, Starship will cost less than Orion by many magnitudes, on its first launch.

I wonder, which is the better bargain? NASA clearly can’t figure it out, and NASA has the smartest, most brilliant people in the universe working for it.

Conscious Choice cover

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  • David Eastman

    And what are the odds that those capsules end up only partially built and in storage or museums somewhere? But of course, fully paid for…

  • Ray Van Dune

    I don’t get it. Orion is not designed for:
    – Tourism,
    – Freight,
    – Landing on the moon, or
    – Flight beyond the moon.

    It seems only designed to carry professional astronauts as part of an early 1960’s-style moon mission. Unfortunately, this is the early 2020’s, 60+ years later.

    It also requires an ESA-supplied service module, which will be expended at each flight.

    This is a major malfunction.

  • MDN

    Ray Van Dune

    You miss the point entirely. Artemus was never conceived to actually perform a practical mission in outer space. It was conceived exclusively to sustain the legacy space contractor base with Look Important make work that was only required to meet the most minimal deliverable for the dollar possible. This way you maximize the graft that management can divert into political donations and high salary Do Nothing post government careers for the budgeting enablers.

    Or as I like to say, WAGBAM! We Are Governed By Absolute Morons.

  • Edward

    Robert :wrote: “Lockheed Martin is only charging NASA three-quarters of a billion dollars per capsule on this new contract (after NASA spent about $18 billion for the development of the first six capsules– that’s $3 billion each). And Lockheed Martin will only charge about a half billion per capsule for future capsules!

    The sarcasm is appropriate. The $3/4 billion is a little high, though, as my math shows it is only (only!) $2/3 billion per capsule. This is 83% of the expected price tag for a post-2030 SLS launch. Or is the expected $800 million price tag for only the SLS without the Orion?

    which could launch about 100 Orion capsules on each launch

    I think Robert is off by an order of magnitude, as Starship has a capacity of around 100 tons, and I suspect that Orion (command module only) weighs in at more than 1 ton each.

    Launch mass CM: 22,900 lb (10,400 kg)

    NASA clearly can’t figure it out, and NASA has the smartest, most brilliant people in the universe working for it.

    Yeah. Congress is squandering the talent, skills, and knowledge that it has at NASA. Rather than use NASA’s rocket scientists for what they can do, Congress directs them as to how to do their jobs. Micromanagement is not Congress’s forte, and neither is rocket science. What good is Congress? They fulfill a Constitutional requirement, but they don’t do the job that the Constitution intended. Instead they have delegated most of their functions to bureaucrats and thus have time left over to really Cluster up the works. (Oh, rats. I thought I was answering what good Congress does, but I only pointed out yet another major flaw.)

    Ray Van Dune wrote: “I don’t get it. Orion is not designed for: [anything]”

    Once Obama cancelled the return to the Moon (he literally said, “been there, done that,” but maybe it was really ‘not invented here’), Congress insisted upon a generic launch vehicle that met specific requirements, not one that was designed for any mission but was intended for every mission. As expected, the result was a Cluster Fiasco.

    It seems only designed to carry professional astronauts as part of an early 1960’s-style moon mission. Unfortunately, this is the early 2020’s, 60+ years later.

    Yeah. It wasn’t really designed for that, either.

    Orion was originally designed by NASA to go to the Moon, but after Obama had his way with Constellation, Orion was updated so that it was more generic than going to the Moon. Orion and SLS had no real mission, so they were designed to perform no mission. Then Obama decided that Orion should visit an asteroid, but when Orion proved to be inadequate for that mission, Obama decided to redirect an asteroid to orbit the Moon so that Orion could visit it there. After the Astroid Redirect Mission was abandoned, the now-generic (geriatric?) Orion was redirected back to the Moon, but it was no longer designed for that mission.

    Congress got scared by the Space Shuttle, so instead of advancing the state of the art they chose to revert to ancient technologies. Our fearful leaders fancy themselves as smart as rocket scientists, but they are not.

    This is a major malfunction.

    A designed-in malfunction, but what do you expect when Congress does the design work?

    When we let government do things, all we get is what government wants. When we do things, we get what we want. This is why Starship is the better bargain for us, but it is not clear whether Congress would agree, as they may want different things than We the People want. We see SLS as a major malfunction or a Cluster Fiasco, but Congress may see it as a success on their part, as MDN suggests.

    Rocket scientists they are not.


  • Edward:

    1. My error with Starship does not appear to me to be a significant error. Orion weighs one ton. Starship can lift 100 tons to orbit. Thus, 100 Orions, approximately.

    2. You over time have used pseudonyms for curse words, but also over time you have been allowing your reference to get closer and closer to the real thing, as in today. I have deleted your footnote.

    Can we please leave this kind of childishness out of our comments? For you especially, who writes so well and thoughtfully, it is very discrediting.

  • George C

    I did a search on Orion vs Apollo capsule so I could catch up on this based on my previous knowledge of Apollo. Found a lot including

  • David Eastman

    All the references I find put Orion in the range of TEN tons. I can’t imagine how you imagine it would weigh one ton, just the heatshield alone masses more than that.

  • David Eastman: I based this number on the mass listed on this Wikipedia page, but in looking at again now, I realize my math was way off, by a magnitude as Edward said.

    This is why I am a writer and historian, not an engineer or astronaut. The correct number of Orion capsules you could launch on a Starship is about ten, assuming no service module. I will correct my post.

  • George C

    One thing I read about Orion on a Nasa web site was that they expect to reuse some interior modules from used Orion capsules and use them in the manufacture of new capsules.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Robert – I hate to continue to pick at the number but if you look at the excellent slides that George C provided in his link, the number of Orion’s carriable by Starship continues to decline. The crew module at launch weighs about 22,000 pounds at launch and about 20,000 pounds after landing, so the number reduces to 4 or maybe 5. If you include the Orion service module in the mix at about 34,000 pounds you are reduced to 1 maybe 2 complete Orion’s.

    Your point remains, that however Orion is fluffed up (200,000 times the computing capability of Apollo! 4 people vs 3 people! 3D printed technology! etc) the fundamental architecture remains Apollo like. Musk has embarked on an entirely different architecture which ONCE PROVEN offers far more flexibility for space exploration and space development.

    But Musk has got to get Starship off the ground, in orbit, returned safely AND demonstrate orbital refueling capability to provide solid hope that the realized architecture can deliver what the vision promises. Further, Starship is a long way from being crew capable and perhaps some of the systems, components and techniques of Orion could be used to make Starship crew capable.

    I’ve had my tickets reserved for over a year at Space Ranch, at the “Don’t Panic!” observation area, for the first launch and just visited Boca Chica for some early reconnaissance. It is a thrill to drive down Boca Chica Blvd and see with you own eyes the vehicles on the pad.

    I always learn so much when I come here, both from you and some of your excellent commentators.


  • John

    I’m going to go ahead and recommend they wait to see SLS fly first, before cutting the massive check.

  • Andi

    Just curious – how big is Starship’s cargo bay, and how many Orions would actually fit in there?

  • Ray Van Dune

    My favorite Starship concept is the SLSS, the “Single Launch Space Station”. Since Starship could have more habitable space than the ISS, it could replace ISS and still have the capability to travel to the Moon, even land on it and take off again, with a crew of say 15-20!

    With refueling and replenishment it could remain off the surface of the Earth for an unlimited amount of time, so it could do things like travel to the Lagrange points to fix or refurbish the JWST. The crew could rotate to and from Earth’s surface via a Dragon-type capsule, just like the ISS crew does.

    Of course Starship is only a relative shell now, and would require tremendous enhancements before it could support a crew and do practical missions. But what a powerful exploration vessel it could become!

  • Mike Borgelt

    “NASA has the smartest, most brilliant people in the universe working for it.”

    Um, no. They all left to work for SpaceX or other new space companies.

  • pzatchok

    Any way you cut it Orion and the SLS is an almost total waste of cash for each launch.

    A billion+ for the SLS wasted.
    A half a billion for each Orion almost 100% wasted. Reusing any parts will cost just as much as buying a new one. Removal/Salvage, rebuilding, and installing will end up costing as much as a new part.
    A half a billion for the service module. Wasted.

    And a launch rate about the same as the Shuttle at best.

    Vs Space X and all their launch capability. Almost 100% re-usability .

  • George C

    It is a bit of a joke to read Nasa talking about Apollo vs Orion computing power because it misses the important point which is how the power is put to use. I have no doubt that increased computing power and control software capabilities played a huge role in SpaceX ability to land rockets so well that it is routine. But a capsule with parachutes can obviously work with 1960s computing. The web site said Orion can be used for transport beyond the moon and has the compute power for all navigation and planning.
    I guess we will see how this works out in real life over the next few years.

  • George C: As to Orion’s capabilities beyond the Moon, this is a lie. See:

    The lie that is Orion

  • Edward

    Starship keeps slipping schedule to just launch after the SLS’s scheduled launch. It may be that SpaceX has not yet launched Starship (having decided to not launch ship 20 atop booster 4) so that they don’t anger the government by embarrassing NASA with a launch before SLS. If this is so, then NASA is once again causing a slowdown in the exploration of space.

    In my younger years, my father explained to me why it would be bad for government to compete with businesses, and now we have an example of why. Government has become the 800 pound gorilla, and American companies are afraid to anger it. What a shame that We the People are afraid of our government rather than our government being afraid of us. We did so much better in the good old days when We were in charge, not government.

    Andi asked: “Just curious – how big is Starship’s cargo bay, and how many Orions would actually fit in there?

    Orion is 16 feet in diameter and 10 feet high, and Starship is 30 feet in diameter, so you can’t just put more than one in a layer. pointed vertically, in their normal launch configuration. To fit them in, you would have to get creative with their conical shape and mount some in a different direction, such as sideways or 30˚ or so from vertical. What an interesting exercise in spatial thinking.

    George C wrote: “The web site said Orion can be used for transport beyond the moon and has the compute power for all navigation and planning.

    Orion is only capable of operating in space for three weeks. It is one of the reasons that NASA is planning its Gateway staton around the Moon, to give Orion a place to rest while the crew goes to the Moon in another vehicle.

    Orion can physically go beyond the Moon, but to where? It can only go about ten days from Earth before it has to return.

    Modern computing power is far beyond what we had half a century ago. The real question is whether todays programmers learned the lesson from the Ariane V maiden launch and now control errors that may occur.

  • sippin_bourbon


    “My favorite Starship concept is the SLSS, the “Single Launch Space Station .. land on the moon, .. go to Lagrange points…”

    I think that might be a little much. Once you add in all the fuel requirements and landing systems and life support.. even space for crew, what would be left for practical research?

    Since it would be a waste to have a space station with all the mass of engines and RCS etc, attached. However, what you are describing is one step short of something like Skylab. The SuperHeavy booster could boost a 21st century version of Skylab to orbit, with a 2nd stage. Once up there, it could be used as the core, or foundation, for a new space station if it’s own, similar to the proposed Orbital Reef.

    While Starship looks cool, I think the bigger potential is what the Superheavy could lift, such as really big station modules, or segments of a permanent spacecraft to be joined/assembled in orbit (something like the Ares in the film the Martian, with or without spinny parts).

  • Doubting Thomas

    I think the numbers say that Starship would make an excellent simple standalone space station.

    Sippin – I tried to crunch some numbers to see if Starship could function as a simple standalone space station. This is what I found out.

    First: Skylab had a habitable volume of 12,417 cubic ft (From NASA Skylab Press Guide – Available Internet). ISS habitable volume: 13,696 ft3.

    Second: Starship has a volume of 35,000 cubic ft (From Starship User Guide – Available Internet but have to do some math – I rounded down to even number. Further let’s assume that only 80% of volume left over after making habitable volume. Therefore, 28,000 cubic ft of habitable volume. Starship payload 220,462 lbs. (Starship Users Guide)

    How much does life support take up in payload weight and volume: Duplicating the ISS life support system to maintain 7 people. 11 racks of equipment (some duplicative between US ad Russia) taking up 616 cubic feet and weighing 19,470 lbs. ISS makes own oxygen and recycles 95% of water and removes CO2 from air.

    Food at ISS amount of 1.83 lbs. per person per meal for 7 people: 6,918 lbs and a volume of 22 cubic ft. ISS carries 530 gallons of water weighing 4,452 lbs and having 71 cubic ft of volume.

    I recommend excellent Reference Guide to ISS (np-2015-05-022-jsc-iss-guide-2015-update-111015-508c.pdf) available on internet.

    28,000 cubic ft of Starship Space Station – 616 for life support – 22 food – 71 water = 27,291 cubic ft available for station. STILL double habitable volume of ISS.

    220,462 lbs payload wt – 19,470 life support – 6,918 food – 4,452 water = 189, 622 lbs available for station.

    I think you could make a very nice simple space station that would be more similar to Skylab layout than ISS layout. Unlike Skylab or ISS, Starship Station could return to earth periodically for refit and new scientific instruments. which allows for continual modernization. Assumes crew uses separate transportation to get to Starship station.


  • pzatchok

    I wonder if a different second stage could be designed and used.

    One with the engines and fuel section that disconnects and burns up in the atmosphere. You could even have one with a nose cone that comes off and tumbles back to earth for recovery. Thus it could become an empty container with a HUGE internal volume. You could then dock a second or third to it to make an even larger station.
    The top and bottom could have automatic bolts around the outer edge and the center could have a pressure dock This way the pressure dock does not have to hold the station together like the other stations tend to do.

    A reusable cargo ship could bring up all the internal equipment later.

  • Edward

    Doubting Thomas,
    I fully expect that SpaceX will use at least one Starship as a space station for the purpose of proving the travel between Earth and Mars.

    There could easily be others who commission one or more Starships to be space stations for their own purposes, just as NASA is doing with several other companies to build replacement stations for ISS, such as Orbital Reef. These other commissioned Starships could be permanent (years or decades) or return after each mission.

    Starship was designed for one specific goal, but it had to also be flexible enough to perform other missions, too, in order to complete that goal.

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