By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 2006
Lockheed Martin Corp. won a multibillion-dollar contract yesterday to build a vehicle to replace NASA's space shuttles, put a human on the moon for the first time since 1972 and be the precursor to a manned spaceship to Mars.
The award marks NASA's most concrete step to fulfill President Bush's two-year-old, $230 billion promise that the space agency would return astronauts to the moon and restore excitement about space exploration. NASA has planned to replace the shuttles since the mid-1980s and has spent almost $5 billion to do so -- with little success so far.
"It's just thrilling, for all of us," said Skip Hatfield, NASA's project manager. The vehicle, known as Orion, is the embodiment of the "very future of human space flight," he said.
Orion will look somewhat like the three-man Apollo command module but will carry as many as six astronauts. Like the shuttle, Orion will be able to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station.
Orion is expected to make its first manned flight by 2014, four years after NASA's three operating shuttles are retired. NASA said it hopes for a moon landing by 2020.
Unlike the shuttle, which lands like an airplane on a runway, Orion will descend with the aid of a parachute to landings in the ocean or on land. NASA plans to build two of the vehicles, one for manned flight and the other for unmanned. After judging how often the spaceships can be reused, the agency will decide how many more to buy, Hatfield said.
"We're just tickled, honored to be chosen," said John Karas, Lockheed's vice president for space exploration. The program could eventually be worth nearly $8 billion to the company, which is headquartered in Bethesda.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has already questioned NASA's approach to Orion. The space agency says it is taking a conservative approach, relying on the familiar Apollo design and proven spacecraft technology.
It was a somewhat unexpected win for Lockheed, the Pentagon's largest contractor. The other competitor, Northrop Grumman, was considered the front-runner because along with its subcontractor, Boeing Co., it has been involved with all of the country's manned space programs. Lockheed also has had a long history with NASA, though not entirely positive, and not predominantly with manned vehicles.
The company builds the shuttle's external fuel tank and, in a joint venture with Boeing known as the United Space Alliance, took over day-to-day management of the shuttle program in 1996. But it was blamed for the 1999 disappearance of the Mars Climate Orbiter, which vanished into space or burned up in the Mars atmosphere after Lockheed engineers incorrectly programmed it using English rather than metric units. When the Genesis space capsule crashed in 2004, NASA said it was because of errors in designs prepared by the company.
Lockheed's earlier effort to build a shuttle replacement -- the X-33 "space plane" -- was canceled in 2001 after it ran into technological and cost problems.
"I was surprised. I thought that NASA would want to put a new face on this program," said Marco A. Caceres, senior analyst and director of space studies for the Teal Group, a research firm. "Lockheed had a chance with the X-33 program."
The contractor's past performance was taken into consideration, said Hatfield, but NASA also focused on how the companies performed during the first phase of the competition. Lockheed "had the answers to where we wanted to go," he said.
Orion will include an escape system that can quickly blast the crew away from the Aries rocket if problems develop. Since the Orion will sit on top of the rocket, there will be less risk to the crew should there be an explosion or debris from the launch vehicle, problems that destroyed two of the shuttles.
The escape system will be built by Dulles-based Orbital Sciences Corp. The company stands to make $450 million to $500 million over the next 12 years on the program.
"One of the goals of this whole system was to improve crew safety by orders of magnitude," said Barron Beneski, a company spokesman.
Staff writer Marc Kaufman contributed to this report.