Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lockheed on track for its own trip to the moon

Bethesda company working on $4.3 billion NASA contract


While the number of privately funded space flights increases, only projects funded mostly by public agencies such as NASA have actually reached the moon.

(Now honestly... What kind of statement is this? Is this what happens when a Journalism student dips too shallow into the unconscious in search of an opening line? Then again, is this a clue to the audience, composed mostly of federal bureaucrats?

Was the District of Columbia carved from Maryland or the other way around? Future historians may have a hard time deciding which is which.)

Under a 2006 contract, Bethesda aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin Corp. is working on the Orion spacecraft, part of NASA’s Constellation Program, whose goal is to land astronauts back on the moon by 2020. NASA’s Apollo 17 project in 1972 was the last involving humans on the moon.

The Orion project is going well and is on schedule, said Joan Underwood, a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co., a unit based near Denver. The current plan calls for the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010 and manned flights through Orion to the International Space Station starting as late as 2015.

‘‘We are flushing out a lot of the designs,” Underwood said. ‘‘We could technically start [manned] launches as early as 2013. If NASA receives more funding from Congress for the program and can move up the schedule, we could be ready by 2013.”

Lockheed’s Orion contract is worth $4.3 billion and extends through 2013, after NASA upgraded the initial phase last year. Options could raise the total value to more than $8 billion through 2019, according to NASA.

Some observers say the cost of the program will increase well beyond that.

‘‘By the time it’s done, it could be up to $1 trillion,” said R. Patrick Bahn, CEO of TGV Rockets, a small Maryland private space exploration company.

Orion is planned to be similar in shape to the Apollo spacecraft, but the module should be significantly larger at 16.5 feet in diameter, compared with 12.8 feet for Apollo’s module. The larger size will allow Orion to carry four crew members on moon missions and six to the space station or Mars, according to NASA. Apollo had room for three astronauts, and Orion will have more than twice the habitable volume as its predecessor.

Orion is named for one of the brightest and most recognizable constellations in the sky, the Hunter, with his easily discernible belt of three stars.

Lockheed is also involved in other NASA programs, including building the Polar craft, which started studying radiation and particles above the polar regions in 1996. NASA recently decommissioned the project, which was originally scheduled to run for a minimum of two years.

Another spacecraft in NASA’s Global Geospace Science program, called Wind, was also built by Lockheed. Launched in 1994, Wind continues to orbit around the L-1 libration point, where the gravitational pull of the sun and Earth, and centrifugal force, balance to allow an orbit of exactly one Earth year.

‘‘We are enormously pleased with the performance and longevity of both Polar and Wind,” Mark Valerio, vice president and general manager of special programs at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said in a statement. ‘‘The name Lockheed Martin typically is associated with large spacecraft, yet the company has a long heritage as a nimble, responsive source for smaller, cutting-edge satellite systems.

(And where did they get this terrible graphic?)

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