An Orbital Sciences Corp. executive told a Capitol Hill audience June 24 that the contract for the space station crew lifeboat NASA has been directed to build should be put out for bid rather than assigned to Lockheed Martin without a competition.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told Congress in May the agency expects to spend roughly $4.5 billion on a crew lifeboat based on the Orion capsule Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver has been designing since 2005 to fly astronauts on Moon missions President Barack Obama intends to shelve.

Orion had been marked for cancellation along with the rest of NASA’s Moon-focused Constellation program. But Obama directed NASA in April “to immediately begin developing a rescue vehicle using [Orion] technology.”

Joanne Maguire, Lockheed Martin Space Systems executive vice president, said June 17 that Lockheed could build an Orion lifeboat for $4.5 billion to $5.5 billion provided NASA relaxes some of its oversight requirements.

William Claybaugh, senior director of human spaceflight for Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., said Orbital thinks an open competition would yield a better deal for NASA than paying Lockheed Martin to reconfigure Orion to launch unmanned to the space station and serve as a crew rescue vehicle, or CRV.

“We observe that the administration plans to spend about $6 billion on commercial crew programs and with that acquire two competing commercial crew vendors, and thus the administration appears to believe that commercial crew system will cost about $3 billion,” Claybaugh said during a commercial spaceflight panel discussion hosted by U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

“If a commercial crew [system] is expected to cost $3 billion, then paying $4.5 billion for a CRV doesn’t seem to make sense,” he said, adding that the cost to open competition for the Orion contract would be negligible and could produce a lower cost to the government.

John Karas, Lockheed Martin Space Systems vice president and general manager for human spaceflight, said if NASA were to continue development of the full-fledged Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle then Lockheed could deliver a crew rescue capability “at no additional cost” by 2013.

“Because a prudent acquisition cycle to procure a vehicle that will dock to the space station and transport humans in space would require a minimum of 18 months, it is unlikely that a competition for a crew rescue vehicle would provide an [international space station] lifeboat earlier than we could deliver the crew rescue capability to NASA under our Orion contract,” Karas said in a June 25 statement.

Orbital Sciences is one of two firms under contract to NASA to launch cargo to the international space station starting in 2011. The other is Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company that has been among the most vocal advocates of NASA’s commercial crew initiative. Orbital’s interest in commercial crew has been tepid in comparison. But Claybaugh said a CRV competition “dramatically improves the business case for commercial crew,” and that “if a CRV can be built for significantly lower cost and combined with a commercial crew system, that business case is much more attractive than nine flights over 5 years divided among two competitors.”

SpaceX also appears interested in the CRV mission. “SpaceX believes this capability could be provided very cost effectively and in a timely manner using a modified version of our Dragon spacecraft,” SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin said June 25.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said NASA intends to prevent a government-funded Orion lifeboat from posing a threat to would-be commercial crew providers.

“These are all issues that we are working towards given that it’s still a new concept,” she told Space News June 22. “We recognize that different industries have different takes on this, where you stand depends on where you sit, and it’s actually I think a real description of why it is we want to proceed in a commercial way.”

Claybaugh also said Orbital has been unable to identify business insurance that would cover the company against all possible risks of human spaceflight posed under a commercial crew program.

“We thus conclude that in the absence of indemnification by the U.S. government for the carrying of crews, it’s going to be very, very difficult to convince our board of directors to take on that risk,” he said.