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Back to the moon in Orion in 2 years: Space industry is energized by the possibility
Colorado Springs — The U.S. space industry is suddenly hustling to launch NASA astronauts around the moon in an Colorado-developed Orion capsule in 2019 or even sooner, making the country’s next lunar mission earlier by at least two years and hastening preparations to reach Mars by 2033.
The timeline for NASA sending astronauts on ambitious missions has been transformed by President Donald Trump taking office, Congress showing bipartisan support for funding deep-space exploration, and the maturing development of NASA’s Orion capsule and the huge Space Launch System rocket, which are designed for Mars missions.
Direction from Congress and the White House after years of tight budgets has galvanized the industry.
A sense of urgency infuses the talk of Mars missions and returning U.S. astronauts to space on NASA spacecraft at this year's Space Symposium, an international gathering that draws thousands to Colorado Springs, there’s
“The idea of having people back in space around the moon in a couple years is really exciting people,” said Mike Hawes, head of the Orion program for Jefferson County-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems (LMSS), which leads the design and manufacturing of the deep-space crew vehicle for NASA. LMSS is a unit of Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT).
The last manned mission to the moon was Apollo 17 in December 1972.
The Trump administration’s budget outline for NASA, released last month, would have $3.7 billion for Orion and SLS, about $1 billion more a year than recent Obama administration budgets.
Congress last month passed formal reauthorization of NASA for the first time since 2010. The reauthorization bill includes provisions by U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, establishing a deadline to reach Mars in 2033 and requirements by U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, that NASA plan to meet certain interim milestones for reaching the red planet.
The reauthorization doesn’t fund programs, but it does, for the first time in nine years, show alignment between Congress and the White House about making it a priority to launch astronauts into orbit and beyond.
“That laid out a framework for NASA and the U.S. to take leadership in space,” said Jim Chilton, president of network and space systems for The Boeing Co. “I couldn’t be more excited that we got what looks like bipartisan agreement on that.”
Speeding up Orion
Robert Lightfoot, NASA's acting administrator, in February initiated a feasibility study by the agency and LMSS for turning a long-planned 2018 unmanned test flight for the Orion capsule into a seven- or nine-day mission sending two NASA astronauts around the moon and back.
A decision about whether to plan for a crew on Orion’s “Exploration Mission 1” could come within weeks.
The idea accelerates Orion’s development by as much as three years, and the assumption is that NASA will have money make it happen.
NASA has hired commercial spacecraft — made by SpaceX and Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) — to fly U.S. astronauts to the earth-orbiting International Space Station starting in 2019 or 2020.
But the space agency commissioned Orion as the spacecraft for traveling to the outer reaches of earth orbit and beyond, where mission distances are in the millions of miles, durations are long and radiation exposure is far more intense.
LMSS won the contract in 2006 to design Orion capsules for deep-space missions and build the first two for missions.
Orion has been test-launched once, a 2014 flight without astronauts aboard considered highly successful. ( CLICK HERE for DBJ coverage of that mission.)The flight validated the capsule’s design, systems and flight abilities.
NASA has told Hawes that putting a crew aboard the next Orion flight likely would push the launch from 2018 to November 2019, he said.
LMSS will have to speed up completing Orion’s life-support system, its inflight displays and controls for astronauts, the capsule’s software and other features. The company had previously planned to have many of those components ready in 2021 under NASA’s earlier schedule.
Some at the company are openly enthusiastic that Orion can be ready. Hawes is circumspect but confident.
“Those are the big things that need to get done,” Hawes said. “From our standpoint, even though some of those are challenging, it’s definitely executable.”
'We have a rocket now to do it'
Speeding up Orion’s timetable would mean a surge in hiring by the company, particularly for software development, but in other areas, too, Hawes said.
Chicago-based Boeing, which is leading the construction of the giant Space Launch System rocket to launch Orion into space, says it can be ready for a manned launch for the next Orion flight, too. It would be SLS’s maiden launch.
The first massive fuel tank for the SLS has rolled out of Boeing’s highly-automated factory. Testing planned for other parts of the rocket put it on course to meet NASA’s timeline, whether there’s a crew on the flight or not.
The big rocket’s progress is partly why people are suddenly willing to plan for ambitious deep-space missions sooner rather than later, Boeing’s Chilton theorized.
“We have a rocket now to do it,” he said.
Fast-tracking some of the technology for a crewed flight for the next Orion mission would require more NASA funding in the near term. But the faster timeline will shorten the development of new technologies and make Orion and SLS programs cheaper in the long run, Boeing and Lockheed say.
The differences between readying SLS for a crewed flight compared to one without astronauts are manageable and, from a design standpoint not that different, said Darby Cooper, SLS manager for Boeing.
The company benefits from using technologies familiar to the company and NASA. The SLS uses engines modified from the RS-25 engines used in the NASA space shuttle program. For the first SLS flight, it will have an upper stage made by Centennial-based rocket company United Launch Alliance.
That upper stage is a modified version of one proven on many flights of ULA’s Delta IV rockets, including the Orion test flight in 2014.
ULA delivered the SLS upper stage for Orion's next mission to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, in Florida, last month.
Future upper stages for SLS will be of a different design made by Boeing.Content originally published by the Denver Business Journal on April 5, 2017.