NASA commits to long-term extra-planetary exploration with new manufacturing contract

Max Blenkin

NASA has awarded US aerospace company Lockheed Martin a US$2.7 billion contract to build three of the Orion spacecraft, which will return humans to the moon in 2024.

NASA commits to long-term extra-planetary exploration with new manufacturing contract
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All up, NASA plans to buy 12 Orions for moon and eventually Mars missions.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said this contract secured 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.

“This contract clearly shows NASA’s commitment not only to Orion, but also to Artemis and its bold goal of sending humans to the moon in the next five years,” said Rick Ambrose, Lockheed Martin Space executive vice president.

The Orion Production and Operations Contract includes an initial order of three Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 3, 4 and 5 missions for US$2.7 billion. Artemis 3 will be the second crewed mission of the Artemis series and the first planned to land on the moon. 

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In 2022, NASA plans to purchase an additional three Orions for missions Artemis 6, 7 and 8 for $1.9 billion.

The contract includes the option for up to six additional Orions out to 2030. Prices will be based on cost data from the first six Orions.

Orion development is substantially complete. The Orion multipurpose crew vehicle features the same basic configuration as the Apollo command module, which took the first astronauts to the moon in 1969 and in subsequent missions.

However, Orion is larger, with capacity to carry four passengers on extended missions, with improved thermal protection and modernised electronic systems.

So far, Orion has successfully passed three trials, the most recent in July, in which the ascent abort system worked as intended.

NASA and Lockheed envision some cost-savings from reusing some Orions. The Orion from the Artemis 2 mission will be used again on Artemis 5, while the Orion crew module from Artemis 3 will fly again on Artemis 6.

“We have learned a lot about how to design and manufacture a better Orion – such as designing for reusability, using augmented reality and additive manufacturing – and we’re applying this to this next series of vehicles,” said Mike Hawes, Orion program manager at Lockheed Martin.

“Driving down cost and manufacturing them more efficiently and faster will be key to making the Artemis program a success.”

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