Late last year, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) signed an agreement under which ESA will supply the service module for NASA’s initial Orion crew capsule, effectively internationalizing a program that today offers the best hope for taking astronauts once again beyond low Earth orbit.

One might be surprised to find fans of that arrangement among senior managers at Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which as Orion prime contractor stands to lose business if the scheme becomes permanent, as many expect. The service module provides fuel and propulsion for the deep-space capsule.

Jim Crocker, who oversees Lockheed Martin’s civil space portfolio, takes a broader, strategic view. While recognizing the potential for lost revenue, he shares in a growing consensus that future deep-space exploration will be an international collaborative venture for reasons including costs and the fact that so many countries today boast world-class space capabilities.

Since ESA’s role on Orion was sealed, Lockheed Martin has found a new avenue of exploration-related business in the form of a partnership with Sierra Nevada Corp., one of three companies developing commercial crew transportation systems for the international space station.

Crocker, whose extensive and varied career includes stints with industry and government-funded research institutions, spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Leonard David.

What’s behind Lockheed Martin’s decision to partner with Sierra Nevada on its Dream Chaser commercial crew taxi effort?

There was a competitive request for proposals out for composite structure work on Dream Chaser and we have a lot of experience there. And we were the winner. In our conversations with Sierra Nevada, we hope they will see our value. We’re talking about a number of other things that we think we are going to be quite competitive on, to do other subsystems for them. It’s a great relationship and we’re off and running.

Would this leverage your work on Orion?

I can’t discuss anything specific. We’re certainly looking at Orion and subsystems we can leverage, but we’re also looking at subsystems across the company. We can bring a lot of value to them.

Why can’t a stripped-down variant of Orion be used for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program?

If I were a marketer I’d tell you no problem. But the fact of the matter is that Orion has really been optimized to be a beyond Earth orbit spacecraft. So for Orion you are talking about long duration, about meteorite protection, radiation. So it’s really optimized for a different mission. Oftentimes when you try and build something that’s all things to all people you end up with something that’s not as good for either one. That said, however, I think it’s congressionally mandated as backup to the commercial activities should they fail. Certainly Orion can go and do that mission. It would be more expensive than had we optimized it to do that mission. We’re a supporter of NASA’s dual path with commercial crew to low Earth orbit and with Orion for the beyond Earth orbit deep-space exploration. That’s a true answer and not a marketing answer.

What additional investments are needed for NASA to pull off deep-space missions using Orion?

There will be substantial additional investment required to do the types of exploration beyond Earth orbit that Orion is designed to do — habitats, small landers to put teleoperated rovers onto either the Moon or Mars. It’s clear that it becomes a much more affordable project if you have partners. I think the Orion service module collaboration with Astrium is a step in the right direction, although we lost work share.

Is that agreement a harbinger of things to come?

We talk with industrial leaders all across Europe, with companies in Russia and elsewhere. I think the industrial consensus is that it makes deep-space exploration far more affordable and doable in a time horizon — a much nearer timeframe when we work together. The problem with international collaboration is how to do it in such a way that it doesn’t cost you more to collaborate than doing it by yourself. There are a lot of lessons learned, best examples and things we didn’t do right at the beginning with the international space station. I can tell you that Lockheed Martin and Astrium are committed to demonstrate both to NASA and to ESA that these types of international collaborations will make us be successful in beyond Earth deep-space exploration. So watch this space, as they say.

Can you give me a status update on the company’s work on the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG) for interplanetary exploration?

I think the ASRG program is moving along pretty well. There are a lot of interesting dark and cold places and we need radioisotope power to explore them. I think there are some misconceptions about ASRG. One of those is that using something mechanical is a drawback for things that need long life. These are free-piston Stirlings and basically they move on flexures. It’s not like a piston in a car that’s rubbing. This is just engineering.

Are you concerned about U.S. bureaucratic wrangling over restarting the production of plutonium fuel needed for radioisotope generators?

There seems to be good progress on that. My understanding is there’s an agreement to restart; a goal would be to produce about 1.5 kilograms of plutonium annually. ESA is actually looking at going another way and making use of americium, of which they have an abundant supply. We’ve actually done some studies for ESA on using americium. My hope is that we’re able to leverage the work that we’re doing both for ESA and the Department of Energy/NASA. We really need to continue to push that technology. Not doing so limits our ability to explore, whether it’s the icy moons, Mercury, or dark and cold places on the Moon.

How would you assess the impact of the sequestration budget cuts on your portfolio of civil space projects?

It appears that we will perhaps be modestly affected. I think that’s the fairest thing to say. The biggest concern I have is the budget and the fact that things are moving out. NASA’s desire is to keep things on track for things like Discovery and New Frontiers missions. NASA’s planetary program has been cut something on the order of 25 percent. That moves things off, unless some of that is restored. So modest impacts to Orion and the established program. But other programs that aren’t awarded yet, this will move them out. That’s a challenge for everybody.

What trends are in the offing regarding human and robotic space endeavors?

There are two things that I’m very encouraged to see. One is the merger of robotic and human exploration. I think the potential is there for teleoperation and telepresence. Imagine humans and robots actually living and working together, being able to explore places that we couldn’t explore otherwise. A second trend is the tightening of the interconnection between science and human exploration. These two mergers have the opportunity to become more than the sum of their parts and give us the opportunity to do things in a different way.

What’s your vision for space exploration in decades to come?

We may have lost Pluto as a planet in our solar system, but we now know there are so many planets lurking out there. That’s a good trade. Orbiting telescopes, Spitzer, Hubble and Kepler, are providing evidence that planetary systems exist beyond our own. Planets are abundant. I was very disappointed last December when the National Ignition Facility was unable to achieve fusion. I was hopeful because doing so gives us an idea of what an interstellar starship would look like. It would just drop about 250 of these pea-sized pellets per second, allowing you to accelerate then to about 10 percent of the speed of light. Within a human lifetime, that allows you to explore a nearby planetary system. I don’t know whether this is going to take a hundred years or a thousand years or 50,000 years. You can sort of see we might go and explore our galaxy and explore nearby planets, and spread the human race beyond that. We’re just learning to sail our little ship today — and one day we will sail that ship across the deep oceans of space.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...