Lockheed Martin considering flying commercial payloads on Orion

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BREMEN, Germany — Lockheed Martin is in the early stages of studying the feasibility of flying small commercial payloads on future NASA flights of the Orion spacecraft in cislunar space.

In a presentation Oct. 5 during the 69th International Astronautical Conference (IAC) here, company officials said they’re working with commercial payload service provider NanoRacks to solicit ideas of the types of payloads people would like to fly on Orion missions as part of an effort to determine the technical and fiscal feasibility of doing so.

“We recently partnered with NanoRacks to begin looking at how you could leverage the same kind of national lab capability” as the International Space Station for Orion missions into deep space, said Rob Chambers, director of human spaceflight strategy and business development at Lockheed Martin, in an interview.

For now, the companies are soliciting input through a website on the types of payloads people may be interested in flying on Orion. Those could include both those inside the spacecraft as well as mounted externally, and could also involve the deployment of cubesats. That website will be open until next spring, Chambers said.

“The objective is to figure out the level of interest: what are people looking for that they perhaps can’t do in low Earth orbit,” he said. One example he offered are payloads that require a cleaner vacuum than is available in low Earth orbit. “We’ll get a feel for what the market could be and what the needs are of the vehicle to enable that.”

Once that’s done, Lockheed plans to talk with NASA about what specific opportunities are feasible. Chambers said that, so far, the agency is open to the possibility of flying commercial payloads on Orion. “NASA was supportive of us to go gather that information at this point,” he said. “Next summer we’ll be sitting down with NASA looking at the most promising or the most representative set of inputs that we got.”

Chamber said that the earliest mission that could likely accommodate commercial payloads is Exploration Mission (EM) 2, the first crewed Orion flight current scheduled for 2022. However, he said some relatively simple payloads, like material exposure experiments or other passive payloads, could be accommodated on EM-1 in mid-2020.

One unknown right now is how much it would cost to fly a payload on an Orion mission, and whether the market could bear such prices. “Since this is new, we’re not sure what the market price should be for, say, deploying a cubesat from a human-capable spacecraft on the far side of the moon,” he said. “One of the reasons we’re collecting this information, and why NASA was really supportive, is to figure out the market price and how useful this is to people.”

That’s one reason, Chambers said, that Lockheed Martin decided to partner with NanoRacks, which has extensive experience flying experiments to the ISS and satellites that are deployed from there.

Jeffrey Manber, chief executive of NanoRacks, said at the IAC event that he was looking forward “to explore the commercial opportunities of deep space” with Lockheed Martin, building on its history of flying commercial payloads on the ISS.

“We’re excited to look at the commercial opportunities with Orion because it will have a robust architecture, it will be known to the customer and we’ll be using principles we learned in low Earth orbit,” he said. “We’re comfortable that we can assure the customer that the cost will be commercially viable.”