Bolden: Tight Budget To Force Change in Scope of Orion Work

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told lawmakers April 11 that development of a congressionally mandated deep space exploration capsule can proceed under an existing contract with Lockheed Martin but that the scope of work might have to be revised because the budget outlook has changed since the deal was first negotiated.

“I will tell you that in any of the contracts that we have today, we cannot pay the amount of money that was contracted X-number of years ago, so there will be negotiations among us and all of our contractors because we have got to get our costs down,” he said. “We may have to de-scope the vehicle in some manner.”

Bolden was referring to contracts awarded under the Constellation program, which was intended to replace NASA’s space shuttle with rockets and capsules that initially would take astronauts to the international space station and later to the Moon. U.S. President Barack Obama in early 2010 proposed canceling Constellation, but later decided to continue work on a heavily scaled back version of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle being built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver.

Congress, meanwhile, barred NASA from canceling Constellation contracts and passed authorization legislation directing NASA to develop a so-called Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) along with a heavy-lift rocket that exploits space shuttle infrastructure as well as prior investments in Constellation program elements. NASA has maintained Orion and the MPCV are sufficiently alike that NASA can proceed with the congressionally mandated capsule under its existing contracting with Lockheed Martin.

But during a hearing of the U.S. Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee April 11, one lawmaker accused NASA of not moving out quickly enough on MPCV work.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the ranking member of the subcommittee, said the president “wanted Orion continued, and your staff and managers agree that Orion is the reference vehicle and easily falls within the scope of the authorization law that you have said you are following. Yet it doesn’t seem that the contract modifications to achieve this result are happening.” 

Hutchison asked Bolden whether his agency intends to follow the law and modify the existing Orion contract, “or is it just going to be strung out, so that eventually it just can’t be revived?”

Bolden said there may be no need to modify the Orion contract because “the existing Orion contract, as a deep space exploration vehicle, easily maps to the scope of what we call a Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle.”

Hutchison pressed Bolden to seek more money next year for Orion, saying the $1 billion in Obama’s 2012 spending plan for NASA falls short of the $1.4 billion lawmakers argue is needed to field an operational MPCV by 2016. “This budget deliberately hamstrings the ability for Orion to reach an operability date in 2016,” she said.

Orion was designed such that initial versions would carry astronauts to the space station and subsequent models would deliver astronauts to lunar orbit. Obama announced in April 2010 that Orion, unlike the rest of Constellation, would be spared but that the capsule would be scaled back to serve as an emergency lifeboat at the space station, meaning it would launch without crews on board.

Cleon Lacefield, Lockheed Martin vice president and program manager for Orion, says the capsule has been designed to incorporate technological advances in the future, an approach he said lends itself to adapting Orion’s lunar exploration capabilities to mesh with MPCV requirements in the NASA authorization act.

“We were always developing Orion with the block approach, where we would be mostly there for the end-item vehicle and then we would on-ramp the technologies in the future when they were available,” he said in an April 13 interview. In addition, Lacefield said the program expects to lower costs and reduce the MPCV’s development schedule through “proto-flight testing,” in which some of the capsule’s technologies are demonstrated on flight vehicles rather than test articles.

For example, “on the first flight vehicle we will actually do a lot of vibration and loads testing before we deliver it to be flight-tested,” he said, adding that such an approach could shave a year off of Orion’s development timeline.

“What we’ve tried to do is become more affordable and streamline the program so that we can accomplish it in a shorter time period and at much lower cost,” he said. The program is on track to conduct a flight test of Orion by summer 2013, he noted.

Josh Hopkins, principal investigator for Lockheed Martin’s advanced human exploration missions, said the current Orion design meets many of the MPCV requirements detailed in the NASA authorization act.

For example, the capsule is already designed to protect astronauts from a solar flare during lunar missions, a capability that would be needed for deep space campaigns to asteroids or Mars, Hopkins said during an April 13 interview.

“And it’s designed to be able to return from the Moon with an engine failure and a depressurized cabin, so it has a lot of the kinds of redundancy and safety features you would want for a mission like the asteroid trip, where you’re going so far away from Earth and safety is really important,” he said.

Other capabilities required for deep space missions include Orion’s thermal protection system and back shell, which are thick enough to withstand micrometeorite hits, the ability to support extravehicular activity and interior control panels that can be operated by spacesuit-clad astronauts.

However, Hopkins said some long-duration missions requiring extra food, water and oxygen could prove challenging for Orion as currently designed. “Fortunately, it’s relatively adaptable for that,” he said, explaining that such commodities are readily stored in Orion’s service module, which is connected to the capsule.

“The advantage of that approach is that we could basically just put more water tanks in the service module,” he said, adding that the extra mass would require a corresponding decrease in the capsule’s nominal four-person crew capacity. “We have to take that into account, and that’s one reason why for really long missions, say a six-month mission to an asteroid, we would have fewer — not four astronauts — we would have three or two.”

The issue of crew size for long-duration missions to asteroids or other deep space destinations could be addressed by adding a habitat module designed to dock with Orion in space. But for now, Hopkins said, “we’re trying to do without any additional spacecraft elements … in order to make it affordable.”

Hopkins said one way NASA could reduce hardware development costs is to beef up its investment in identifying suitable candidates for near-Earth asteroid missions.

“We’re a little bit agnostic about what the best approach is, but agree that if going to an asteroid is the next space objective, investing millions more in finding asteroids will save you billions in simplifying the spacecraft,” he said. “What we really want are asteroids that go by Earth very slowly, because it makes them easier to get to.”