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Lockheed Martin: Prime Contractor for Orion Spacecraft

Orion Space Capsule
The first Orion mission will be an uncrewed lunar flyby in 2017, returning to Earth’s atmosphere at 11 km/s ­– the fastest reentry ever.
Credit: NASA

Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. is an American aerospace company. It is the prime contractor for the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle that is intended to carry astronauts into the solar system beyond Earth orbit.

The first uncrewed test of Orion is planned for December 2014, with crewed missions possibly following in the 2020s. With Orion, NASA hopes to send a crew to a captured asteroid in lunar orbit around 2025, and progress to Mars orbit in the mid-2030s.

Exploiting space experience

Lockheed Martin is an experienced hand in aerospace missions. The company's aircraft have set records and achieved milestones in aviation and space exploration for about 100 years:

  • In 1928, the first nonstop transcontinental flight was completed in a Lockheed Vega, a four-passenger wooden monoplane.
  • In 1930, Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, set a transcontinental speed record in a Lockheed Sirius.
  • In 1932, Amelia Earhart made her solo transatlantic flight in a Lockheed Vega.
  • In 1955, the company's top-secret U2 reconnaissance aircraft made its first flight.
  • In 1957, the first Vanguard rocket was launched.
  • In 1959, Lockheed's Agena rocket launches the United States' first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit.
  • In 1974, Lockheed's SR-71 Blackbird spy plane sets a speed record — 3 hours 45 minutes from London to Los Angeles.

More recently, Lockheed built the external tank for the space shuttle and is part of the joint company United Space Alliance, which maintained the shuttle. Lockheed has also built several Mars spacecraft, including Mars Phoenix, which explored the Red Planet's south pole. The company also constructed Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which serves as a communications relay for the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers.

Orion Space Capsule
The Orion space capsule is seen as it rolls down Pennsylvania Avenue during the inaugural parade honoring President Barack Obaama, Monday Jan. 21, 2013, in Washington.
Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi

Orion contract awarded

The company faced stiff competition for the lucrative Orion contract when it was announced in 2004. Lockheed went toe-to-toe with Northrop Grumman (most famous for the Apollo lunar lander) and Boeing in winning the contract. It was valued at up to $8.15 billion when it was awarded in August 2006.

At the time, a spokeswoman stated the employees were "humbled and excited" about winning the contract. "Work already is under way and we are fully focused on the vital tasks that lie ahead to meet NASA's requirements for the program," stated Joanne Maguire, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Systems, in an Aug. 31, 2006 news release.

But Orion's future fell into doubt in 2010, after President Obama cancelled the planned Constellation program. By that point, NASA had already spent $5 billion on the development. NASA hinted the spacecraft could be repurposed in April 2011. One month later, the agency unveiled a new plan to develop a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle based on the Orion spacecraft designs.

"We made this choice based on the progress that's been made to date," Doug Cooke, associate administrator for NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., said to reporters on May 24, 2011. "It made the most sense to stick with it (the Orion design)." [Infographic: Orion Explained: NASA's Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle]

The company's largest setback with Orion came in November 2012, when engineers discovered cracks in the spacecraft after performing a test that subjected the spacecraft to high pressure.

"The cracks are in three adjacent, radial ribs of this integrally machined, aluminum bulkhead," NASA's Rachel Kraft wrote in an email to Space.com at the time. "This hardware will be repaired and will not need to be remanufactured."

Infographic: Details of the Orion four-person capsule that could carry crews to the Moon or an asteroid, beginning in 2021.
NASA's Orion deep-space capsule is slated to be the go-to spacecraft for missions to an asteroid and beyond. See how NASA's Orion spacecraft will work in this Space.com infographic.
Credit: Karl Tate, SPACE.com contributor

Setting the stage

The company is not without a sense of history as it works on the Orion spacecraft. The Florida facility where the spaceship is coming together is the same spot where moon-bound spacecraft were manufactured in the 1960s.

Although the facility is old, Lockheed Martin is working to adapt it for its own needs – and to leave little trace behind so that other spacecraft can be made in the same spot.

"We made extensive modifications to the facility," said Jim Kemp, Lockheed Martin's director for Orion assembly, testing and launch operations, in a May 2012 Space.com interview.

"A lot of the things we did to the facility was to make it more flexible. I think if you go into most of the facilities on this campus [at Kennedy Space Center], you'll see a lot of structures bolted to the ground. Anywhere you are bolting something to the floor, you are creating a unique place that can't be used for anything else. You've created a monument. So we designed this thing with no monuments."

Orion's resemblance to the Apollo command module is only skin-deep. Orion can carry two to six astronauts instead of three, and has an exponential capability in computer power. Further, its heat shield is constructed of newer substances.

NASA plans to fly the Orion on its first test flight – the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 – in December 2014. Riding aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket, Orion will rocket to orbit to an altitude of more than 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometers) above Earth – about 15 times the altitude of the International Space Station.

That high altitude will lead to a high-speed re-entry of 20,000 mph (32,000 kph). This is supposed to demonstrate the strength of the heat shield when bringing back astronauts from destinations such as an asteroid or the moon.

"We are going to get about 84 percent of a lunar entry velocity, which is really going to stress the heat shield, which is exactly what we're trying to do," said Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion program manager, in 2012.

In the long term, Orion will launch aboard NASA's Space Launch System, which is a heavy-lift rocket still being developed. The two systems should have their first flight test together in 2017 or 2018.

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