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NASA, Lockheed Martin Ink Deal For More Deep Space Capsules

The Orion pressure vessel sits in the Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy Space Center. Photo: NASA
The Orion pressure vessel sits in the Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy Space Center. Photo: NASA

NASA has finalized a contract with Lockheed Martin to order six more Orion space capsules. It’s part of the agency’s new moon-shot: Artemis.

NASA already has space capsules for the Artemis I and Artemis II missions -- an uncrewed and crewed mission around the moon that stops short of landing on the surface.

Under new contract valued at more than $4.6 billion, Lockheed Martin will start work on the first capsule designed to carry humans on a trip to the surface of the moon. The Artemis III Orion capsule will take the astronauts to Gateway, a small space station orbiting around the moon, where they will get in a lander and head to the surface. Once they return, the Orion capsule will take them back to Earth.

"By signing this contract for an additional six more capsules, [NASA] is committed to supporting this mission through the 2030s," said space policy analyst Laura Forczyk "It’s a long-term commitment.”

[caption id="attachment_136842" align="alignright" width="200"]

Artist rendering of NASA’s Orion spacecraft as it travels 40,000 miles past the Moon during Artemis I, its first integrated flight with the Space Launch System rocket. Photo: NASA[/caption]

The move could also have political motives, said Forczyk. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine recently announced the agency's Huntsville, Alabama center will handle the development of a landing system for the moon mission. That upset some lawmakers in Texas, where historically landing programs were managed by the Johnson Space Center.

NASA will still need additional funding to meet President Trump’s charge of landing humans on the moon by 2024. He'll need those lawmakers on his side.

"When it comes to NASA politics, and space policy in general, it's very parochial," said Forczyk. With the new contract awarded to Lockheed Martin, much of the work on the new Orion capsules will take place in Texas, giving politicians there a political win.

The contract allows NASA to order new capsules using both cost-plus-incentive fee and firm-fixed-price orders. A so called "cost-plus" contract allows for additional money for development and awards incentives after the initial contract award. But previously, Bridenstine said he would move the agency away from the model to tamp down on spending.

"Whatever it takes to get politicians on the side on the side of NASA is what they are going to do. Politics had something to do with the fact that these capsule are under a cost-plus contract, because that brings in additional funding for these [politicians'] districts.

Bridenstine will need support in Congress for an additional $1.6 billion for next year's budget to help meet the deadline.

The additional funding for the 2024 deadline is still uncertain, although the Senate is working on a budget bill that would give the agency more money to do so.

Artemis I, the first launch of the Orion capsule on NASA's Space Launch System rocket, is scheduled for the end of next year.

Brendan Byrne is Central Florida Public Media's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing the organization's internship program.

Byrne also hosts Central Florida Public Media's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration.