WASHINGTON —  Lockheed Martin Space Systems is negotiating with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to buy a Delta 4 Heavy launch for an unmanned test flight of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle in 2013 even though NASA has not committed to funding the demonstration.

NASA officials say the agency is still reviewing the cost and scope of the proposed unmanned Orion demonstration in the context of  newly enacted legislation that calls for development by 2016 of a space capsule and heavy-lift rocket capable of taking astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.

But John Stevens, Lockheed Martin vice president of business development for the Orion program, said the Denver-based company simply doesn’t have time to wait for NASA to finish its review.

“If we’re going to meet the 2016 flight date specified in the authorization bill, we have to have a test flight in 2013,” he told Space News Nov. 23, referring to language in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law Oct. 11. “So we’ve put our money down on this so we can reserve the launch slot for a 2013 test, because that’s what’s required to meet the 2016 date that Congress has set.”

Stevens declined to say how much money Lockheed Martin put down to begin formal negotiations with ULA, the Denver-based launch services provider jointly owned by Lockheed Martin and Chicago-based Boeing Co. He said until NASA approves funding for the demo, “any monies we put down as a deposit are at risk.”

ULA spokesman Chris Chavez declined to comment on the negotiations, but said launch deposits are equally split between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which means Lockheed would forfeit half of its deposit monies if it is unable to reach a contractual agreement for the launch.

“The forfeit of a non-refundable deposit would generate earnings depending how much cost ULA has incurred working the activity up to the point of forfeit,” Chavez said in a Nov. 23 e-mail.

Lockheed Martin, which beat Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. and its teammate Boeing in 2006 for a $3.9 billion contract to design and build Orion, is currently on the hook to complete the 2013 test flight, even though the Orion‘s future has been in question since February  when Obama proposed canceling the six-person capsule along with the rest of NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program. Although the agency still plans to kill Constellation’s Ares family of rockets pending congressional approval in a 2011 spending bill, Orion won a reprieve in April when Obama announced plans  to use it as a crew lifeboat for the international space station.

Obama’s lifeboat proposal, widely viewed as more of a political concession than a technical necessity, encountered resistance within NASA, industry and ultimately Congress.  The NASA Authorization Act the president finally signed into law in October  ended up calling for development of a multipurpose crew vehicle —- MPCV for short —- ready by 2016 to carry astronauts on deep-space missions, not just short jaunts back from the space station. Although the  law does not specify Orion as the MPCV it does direct NASA to leverage Orion hardware and designs when building it.

Additionally, draft 2011 spending legislation the Senate Appropriations Committee approved in July included $1.1 billion to continue work on Orion, the same amount authorized for the MPCV. The NASA spending bill has yet to be approved by the full Senate, but elements of it could be worked into a broader spending package for 2011 in the coming weeks.

NASA officials, meanwhile, say the agency is still determining how to proceed with Orion and is developing a plan to implement the MPCV requirements outlined in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.

“Much of the [work] related to MPCV can continue under the existing contracts, but, as appropriate, NASA will be conducting acquisition strategy meetings to determine if other steps are needed to meet the MPCV scope, requirements and major test objectives,” NASA spokesman Michael Braukus wrote in a Nov. 19 e-mail, adding that the 2013 flight test of Orion is still under review to determine if sufficient funding is available.

“At this juncture, NASA does not anticipate specifying a particular vehicle to the contractor; the Agency will focus on meeting the major test objectives,” he wrote.

Despite Lockheed Martin‘s unorthodox approach to acquiring a launch vehicle for the 2013 test, Stevens said  the move squares with Obama’s new vision for NASA, which seeks to foster a market for commercially built rockets and hardware through a combination of public and private investment.

“That’s part of the new paradigm — we’re supposed to have skin in the game,” he said. “We are running at risk, to a limited extent, hopefully, but then again, that’s what doing this in a quasi-commercial fashion means.”

Stevens said Orion’s original test regime included early flight tests of an un-crewed capsule to low Earth orbit atop Ares 1. With NASA’s plan to discontinue the Ares family of rockets in favor of relying on privately developed transportation services, Orion’s scope and test objectives have changed.

“In the original plan [the test flight] was a predecessor to going to station,” he said. “Now we’re doing a more complete test of the vehicle, in some sense, than we were before.”

Stevens said the 2013 test flight Lockheed is planning would launch Orion into a highly elliptical orbit with a 17,000 kilometer apogee, setting up the capsule to reenter Earth’s atmosphere at speeds it would encounter returning from a deep space mission. “The notion is that you put it in a highly elliptical orbit so it has a higher re-entry speed than a low Earth orbit,” Stevens said. “As you come back down from the apogee of that orbit, you accelerate the vehicle so that we can achieve actual re-entry speeds that are the same as those from lunar orbits.”

Relative to previous test flights planned under the Constellation program, Stevens said the lunar variant of Orion that would be used to conduct the 2013 test would shed some subsystems for flight atop the Delta 4 heavy, which is capable of delivering about 25 metric tons of payload to orbit. For example, while the capsule would fly with a modified version of its Launch Abort System aboard, only the jettison motors designed to pull the system away from the capsule would be active, Stevens said.

“Because it’s not a manned mission you don’t have to have the Launch Abort System but for aerodynamic purposes, so we want to do an aerodynamic match,” Stevens said, adding that the spacecraft’s solar arrays also will not fly on the mission.

Stevens said Lockheed Martin is not planning to book Delta 4 Heavy  for  any Orion missions beyond the unmanned 2013 test flight, mainly because NASA is expected to begin building and testing a heavy-lift launch vehicle  as directed in the NASA authorization act.

“We anticipate there would be some test flights of that prior to 2016 and that we would sync up with those test flights,” he said. “That would be a preferred option rather than using [a Delta 4 or Atlas 5] if the [heavy-lift vehicle] is available,” he said.

While Lockheed Martin is content to see Orion launch on a new NASA-owned heavy-lift rocket, ULA has made no secret of its ambitions to launch crewed vehicles, whether for NASA or commercial providers.

ULA Chief Executive Officer Michael Gass, for example pitched the Delta 4 Heavy for Orion in 2009 to the Augustine Committee, the White House-appointed panel tasked with reviewing NASA’s manned spaceflight plans. In October, ULA’s vice president of business development and advanced programs, George Sowers, told a commercial spaceflight symposium the best way to get Orion flying early is to launch it atop a Delta 4 Heavy. “Right now the Delta 4 Heavy is the only rocket in the U.S. fleet with the required lift capability,” he said in a speech at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, N.M. Oct. 20. “This will get you an un-crewed demo as early as 2013 and crewed flights as early as 2014 or 2015.”

Sowers said once Orion is flying, all that is needed to facilitate missions beyond low Earth orbit is the ability to refuel the Delta 4 Heavy’s Centaur upper-stage in space. “One refueling means the capability to go to an Earth-Moon Lagrange point, or to do an Apollo 8-style lunar fly-by,” he said.

ULA was one of five companies NASA chose in February to participate in the first round of Commercial Crew Development projects intended to support Obama’s commercial crew initiatives. The company has used its $6.7 million award to  work on an Emergency Detection System needed to human rate its Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets.

Gass told the Augustine Committee in 2009 ULA would need four-and-a-half years to human-rate the Delta 4 Heavy at a one-time cost of $500 million plus $300 million per launch.

However, a 2009 study by Los Angeles-based Aerospace Corp. that examined cost and schedule implications associated with human-rating the Delta 4 Heavy launcher found the process could take between five-and-a-half and seven years to complete.

As far as Delta 4 is concerned, Lockheed Martin said its focus for now is on the proposed 2013 Orion flight test.

“It would be premature for me to make any statement about whether or not we would try to launch humans on an Orion on a Delta 4,” he said.