Cost overruns at Lockheed Martin threaten smallsat Lunar Trailblazer orbiter

NASA is now doing a review to decide if it will kill a smallsat lunar orbiter project, dubbed Lunar Trailblazer, due to cost overruns at Lockheed Martin.

Bethany Ehlmann, principal investigator for Lunar Trailblazer at Caltech, said in a presentation at LEAG Aug. 24 that Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft subcontractor, notified NASA of “recent and projected future overruns” on the project in June. Neither Ehlmann, NASA nor Lockheed Martin quantified those overruns.

“As we brought this mission from paper to life, the engineering and design efforts exceeded our original estimate,” Lockheed Martin said in a statement to SpaceNews Aug. 25. “Our Lockheed Martin team continues to implement cutting edge digital production tools and seek out operational efficiencies to minimize any extra cost incurred over Lunar Trailblazer’s development.”

The wording in this Lockheed Martin statement is meaningless blather, with no specific details. The bottom line however is this: Lunar Trailblazer was meant to demonstrate that it was possible to build a small low-cost science probe, in this case a lunar orbiter, and do it for no more than $55 million. Apparently, Lockheed Martin didn’t take that objective seriously. Instead, it thought it could do what it has done for decades — as have all the old big space contractors — pay no attention to cost, go overbudget, and then have NASA pick up the slack. It appears NASA might not do it this time.