WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin officials along with Colorado lawmakers are warning that NASA’s spending plan for the Orion crew capsule over the next year is insufficient to retain the program’s current development work force and would make it difficult to conduct a flight test of a vehicle prototype the company envisions for late 2013.
In an Oct. 8 letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Ed Perlmutter — both Colorado Democrats — said until Congress hammers out a new 2011 spending bill, NASA must fully fund Orion’s continued development as a crew exploration vehicle, regardless of the president’s plan to scale it back for use as a crew lifeboat on the international space |station.
“Maintaining the  level of funding at this crucial time — during which the federal government is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) — would continue to allow for an Orion test flight as early as 2013,” the lawmakers state in the letter, which notes that both the newly enacted 2010 NASA Authorization Act and draft appropriations legislation “include language in favor of continuing Orion, not just as a crew rescue vehicle, but with its entire original mission portfolio, including service to the [international space station] and missions in Deep Space.”
The three-year, $58 billion NASA authorization bill the president signed into law Oct. 11 calls for $1.1 billion to be spent in 2011 to develop within five years a multipurpose crew vehicle capable of carrying astronauts on deep-space missions. Although the new law does not specify Orion as that vehicle, draft legislation approved in July by the Senate Appropriations Committee directs work on Orion to continue and provides $1.1 billion for that purpose. That bill has yet to be approved by the full Senate, but elements of the legislation are likely to be worked into a broader spending package when lawmakers reconvene after midterm elections in November.
NASA officials say the agency is still determining how to proceed with Orion.
NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said the agency still plans to build a scaled-back version of Orion for use as a crew rescue vehicle as called for in April by Obama. In an Oct. 13 e-mail, Jacobs said an Orion-based crew lifeboat is preferable to outsourcing that capability to the private sector, as NASA plans to do with the launching of astronauts to the space station.
“We wouldn’t want commercial crew providers to have to leave a capsule attached to the [international space station] for use as a rescue vehicle,” Jacobs said. “It would be a difficult expense for them to maintain.”
Instead, he said, the agency has an opportunity to build a vehicle that starts out as a space station crew lifeboat and, through a series of evolutionary upgrades, eventually can be used to transport astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.
Jacobs said, “It would seem that Orion would be the vehicle,” but added that all options are being weighed.
“For example, how does the [crew rescue vehicle] development impact the existing contract?” Jacobs said. “Do we keep the same contract and modify it or do we have to start over? Those decisions still have to be made.”
John Karas, vice president and general manager for human spaceflight systems at Denver-based , expressed surprise that NASA is still considering plans to proceed with a crew rescue variant of Orion in light of the congressional direction and the fact that the vehicle as originally designed “gives you crew rescue capability at no additional cost.”
Until Congress enacts a 2011 budget, NASA is required to fund Orion at levels no higher than those set in last year’s appropriation. However, the CR gives NASA some leeway to reduce or slow spending until a new appropriations bill is signed into law.
In an Oct. 15 e-mail, NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said the agency plans to spend a total of about $190 million on the Orion prime contract between Oct. 1, when the CR went into effect, and Dec. 3, when it is slated to expire. If the CR is extended, however, the average spend rate could drop significantly, to around $60 million per month, based on an assumed total Orion budget of $800 million for 2011, according to NASA and Lockheed sources.
Karas said NASA has told Lockheed Martin to expect a 20 percent drop in Orion spending in 2011 compared with 2010. This could affect, by the end of the 2010 calendar year, some 700 Orion workers, who would have to be moved to other programs or let go, he said.
Karas said NASA spending on the Orion contract in 2010 averaged about $96 million per month, or $1.15 billion over the course of the year. “Assuming the CR allowed us to maintain the funding we had in , then we wouldn’t have to be making any head count adjustments right now,” he said.
Karas said the lower spending rate ultimately could hinder efforts to conduct an unmanned test of Orion in late 2013 atop a 4 heavy-lift rocket. He said the test flight would prove key Orion technologies, including the capsule’s main engine and solar arrays needed for deep-space missions.
“If you have to be operational by 2016, somewhere along the way we have to reconcile that, and the only way for us to meet that is to continue to make progress and fly something,” Karas said, adding that if NASA would maintain 2010 spending under the CR for the program, and congressional appropriators fund authorized spending levels in 2011, “we’re going to go have a hell of a flight demonstration at the end of 2013.”