ARLINGTON, Va. — A week after a blue-ribbon panel said it makes little sense to build exploration spacecraft without specific destinations in mind, Lockheed Martin Space Systems defended taking such a mission-agnostic approach with the Orion deep-space crew capsule it is building for NASA.

The thrust of that defense was the size of NASA’s budget, which, according to Larry Price, Orion deputy program at Lockheed, is not large enough to do anything but build a modular spacecraft that could be adapted later for the many precursor missions that pave the way for a crewed Mars landing sometime in the 2030s.

“We’re managing the budget that we’ve got, and maximizing the pieces that we need in the near-term,” Price said in a June 9 interview here during Lockheed’s annual media day. 

Designing a spacecraft that can be adapted for several different missions is comparatively cheaper than what Price called “point design,” in which NASA and its contractors would design new spacecraft for every precursor mission on the road to Mars.

“Orion … was designed to envelope a pretty broad set of missions that cover most of the destinations that you can imagine,”  said Jim Crocker, vice president and general manager of civil space for Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “That’s not to say that you don’t have to add mission kits or some other capabilities. There are other pieces you’ll have to have.”

Crocker and Price were responding to questions about a critical report issued June 4 by the National Research Council’s Committee on Human Space Flight, which slammed NASA’s so-called capabilities-based approach to space exploration as a surefire way to introduce vagueness into engineering and mission planning processes, and delay the day humans reach Mars by trapping multipurpose vehicles in a protracted cycle of political debate about which purpose — and destination — should be served first.

Lockheed is building Orion under an $11.76 billion contract NASA awarded in 2006 for the since-canceled Constellation Moon exploration program. 

Lockheed’s contract runs through 2020, and the company is on the hook for three Orion spacecraft, only one of which will be crewed. The first is set to launch Dec. 4 aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket that will boost it to an altitude of 5,800 kilometers for a two-orbit flight to test the craft’s entry, descent and landing systems, notably its heat shield and parachutes. That capsule will be recovered and reused in 2018 for an ascent-abort test that will rely on a converted Peacekeeper missile stage provided by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Virginia, to boost Orion to supersonic speeds before the ATK-built abort system whisks the crew capsule away for a water landing and recovery a couple of kilometers downrange from Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The ascent abort test will be the final flight for the first Orion crew module, which was mated with a Lockheed-build service module June 11 at Kennedy in preparation for Exploration Flight Test-1 in December. “When you expose the vehicle to an abort condition, you won’t ever want to fly it again,” Price said. 

Lockheed thinks each Orion crew module could be reused as many as 10 times, Price said. However, NASA plans to use separate capsules for Orion’s first two deep-space missions, which are on the slate for 2017 and 2021. Only the second mission would be crewed, but both missions would use the Space Launch System rocket NASA is building to launch Orion to the same distant lunar retrograde orbit the agency is considering redirecting a small asteroid for astronauts to rendezvous with by 2025. 

Crocker and Price believe this so-called Asteroid Redirect Mission would require minimal, if any, modifications to Orion. “The vehicle had always been designed to capture multipurpose missions and have a basic system that could do all these things,” Price said.

Asked whether he was worried about asteroid debris contaminating Orion during the crewed portion of the proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission, Crocker replied that the capsule’s Constellation heritage means some tolerance for highly corrosive lunar regolith was already factored into Orion’s design. 

“Being able to process lunar regolith, you would think, would allow you to handle a much lower concentration of something you can get out of an asteroid,” Crocker told SpaceNews. “But as you get closer to doing that mission … that’s something you have to look at.”

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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...