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NASA awards major Moon contract

September 1, 2006 By Geoff Brumfiel This article courtesy of Nature News.

Lockheed Martin to build next lunar capsule.

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NASA officials yesterday awarded a contract worth $3.9 billion to build a new generation of spacecraft. The reusable craft will replace the space shuttle, taking astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), and carry people back to the Moon.

Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Maryland, won the bid to build Orion, a capsule that looks very like those used during the Apollo programme of the 1960s and 70s. The contract provides for the building of two prototype capsules, one for astronauts and a second to carry cargo to the ISS. It also sets aside $3.5 billion more for additional capsules, and $750 million for support and modifications.

"This is the first human-rated spacecraft to take astronauts from the Earth to orbit that we have developed in over thirty years," Scott Horowitz, NASA's associate administrator for Exploration Systems said at a press conference about the announcement. "This is truly a great, great day."

Lockheed Martin has built several unmanned craft for NASA, including the Lunar Prospector, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter, which veered off course because of confusion between metric and imperial measurements. But its 1996 contract to build another shuttle replacement, a space plane called the X-33, was cancelled in 2001 owing to spiralling costs and technical problems.

Blast From the Past

This is the first human-rated spacecraft to take astronauts from the earth to orbit that we have developed in over thirty years,
Scott Horowitz,
NASA
The Orion capsule, which will replace the space shuttle after its 2010 retirement, has the conical shape of earlier US and Soviet spacecraft. Gone are wings, a cockpit, and reusable heating tiles; back are a heat shield and parachutes.

But this is not an old-fashioned lunar capsule, says Jeff Hanley, programme manager for the upcoming US Moon missions. The new capsule will be powered by large solar arrays unavailable during the Apollo missions, and contain composite materials of the type used in modern aircraft.

Its interior will be 2.5 times bigger than Apollo, allowing it to carry four to six astronauts. And it will carry a launch-abort rocket, intended to shoot the capsule away from the launch vehicle at the first sign of trouble. Its computer systems will be sophisticated enough to orbit the Moon unmanned.

Constellation Prize

Although the rival contractor, a collaboration between Northrop Grumman and Boeing, lost the Orion contract, there are still opportunities within the US lunar mission, called the Constellation programme.

"Orion is one element of what Constellation has to accomplish," Horowitz says.

Orion needs to be supported by a launch vehicle (named Ares). And, like Apollo, Orion will get astronauts only into orbit around the Moon. They will need a separate lander vehicle to get to the lunar surface. Contracts for these, along with lunar rovers and habitat modules, have yet to be awarded. The list, Horowitz says, "goes on and on and on".

At least some in the government are concerned about the cost of revisiting the Moon. A Government Accountability Office report released in mid-July found that NASA's strategy might face "significant cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls".

The Orion is expected to carry astronauts into Earth orbit by 2014, and to the Moon by 2020.

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