Lockheed Martin, leading a team that includes United Space Alliance, Honeywell, Hamilton Sundstrand and Orbital Sciences, won the coveted contract to build the new Orion spacecraft over a rival contractor team led by Northrop Grumman and Boeing. The announcement came two-and-a-half years after President Bush unveiled a new space policy that called for development of a space shuttle replacement.
"This is the first human-rated spacecraft to take astronauts from Earth to orbit that we have developed in over 30 yeas," said Scott Horowitz, director of NASA's Exploration Systems directorate. "This is an exciting time to be at NASA. Project Orion will return America back to the moon and to the destinations beyond."
Under an initial $3.9 billion contract, Lockheed Martin will design, build and test two pathfinder spacecraft: a manned Orion crew capsule and an unmanned variant that can be used to carry supplies and unpressurized cargo to the international space station.
A second contract valued at up to $3.5 billion, starting as early as two years from now, will cover the cost of buying additional spacecraft depending on NASA's eventual manifest requirements, the ultimate reusability of the spacecraft and other factors. NASA has not yet made an estimate of how many spacecraft might ultimately be built.
Another $750 million is earmarked for sustaining engineering to pay for incremental improvements, advanced engineering and long-term support.
Lockheed Martin has never served as prime contractor for a manned spacecraft and at least some knowledgeable space observers predicted the Northrop Grumman/Boeing proposal would win the day. But Horowitz said NASA chose the best team for the job.
"It's been 30 years since anyone has built a human-rated spacecraft to take people from the Earth to low-Earth orbit," he said. "This is a new generation of engineers and technicians that are going to design and develop this spacecraft."
Adrian Laffitte, director of government relations for Lockheed Martin in Florida where the new spacecraft will be assembled for flight, said the contract is "good for NASA and good for the country."
"I think it's really exciting we're going to be part of what's going to carry the next generation of people to the moon and beyond," he said in a telephone interview. "It's an incredible feeling. We're going to be part of history."
The new spacecraft, dubbed "Apollo on steroids" by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, will not be ready for manned flights until at least 2012 and more likely a few years later. NASA officials say "not later than 2014." Unmanned test flights of the shuttle-derived Ares 1 booster that will carry Orion into low-Earth orbit are scheduled to begin in 2009.
After the shuttle is retired in 2010, NASA will begin development of a new heavy lift launch vehicle — the Ares 5 — and under optimistic scenarios, U.S. astronauts could return to the moon as early as 2018 or 2020, depending on funding.
The new spacecraft and mission architecture has its roots in the 2003 Columbia disaster. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, along with recommending fixes to correct the technical problems that led to the disaster, also recommended that NASA "recertify" the space shuttle design if the agency intended to fly the winged orbiters past 2010.
The cost of recertification — a complex effort to inspect and revalidate the shuttle from the ground up — would have been extreme and the Bush administration decided to take a different course.