Orion. Credit: Lockheed Martin artist's concept.

WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin Space Systems is pressing ahead with full-scale assembly of the first lunar-orbit-bound Orion spacecraft even though a key review of the program is still in progress, the Denver-based company announced Oct. 26.

Lockheed and NASA have completed a majority of the critical design review (CDR) steps for the capsule, an effort that started in August and culminated with a design readiness review on Oct. 21. The reviews concluded that the Orion design is sufficiently mature to begin work to build and test the spacecraft for an uncrewed flight to lunar orbit in 2018.

“The Orion team across the country put in many long hours preparing for and participating in this review,” Mark Kirasich, who became NASA’s Orion program manager Oct. 13 after spending nearly a decade as its deputy program manager, said in an agency statement. “Every aspect of the spacecraft design was closely scrutinized.”

Lockheed is moving ahead with Orion construction even though the CDR is not formally complete. A separate review is planned for the Orion service module that is being developed by the European Space Agency. The results of the overall CDR will also be delivered to NASA’s Agency Program Management Council in the spring of 2016, the final step before the review is officially complete.

“The vast majority of Orion’s design is over, and now we will only change things when new requirements come into play,” Michael Hawes, Orion program manager at Lockheed Martin, said in a company statement.

Lockheed was already building part of the next Orion spacecraft prior to completing the CDR. The company is assembling the pressure vessel for the spacecraft’s crew module at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. It will be shipped in early 2016 to the Kennedy Space Center for integration with the rest of the spacecraft and testing.

The Orion currently under construction will fly on Exploration Mission 1, an uncrewed test flight that will also be the first launch of the Space Launch System. NASA is tentatively planning the launch for the fall of 2018, but is awaiting completion of the CDR for both Orion and exploration ground systems before firming up that date.

Orion’s first flight carrying astronauts, previously scheduled for August 2021, could be delayed until as late as April 2023, according to a separate cost and schedule review NASA completed in September. Elements of the Orion spacecraft specific to that crewed mission, such as crew displays and life support systems, will have their own CDR in the fall of 2017.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...