The Right Builder for the Right Spacecraft at the Right Time

  • Share
  • Read Later
It was a long, long time in coming, but NASA’s manned space program finally got one right. Thursday's announcement that the contract for the next-generation crew exploration vehicle — now dubbed Orion — had been awarded to Lockheed Martin was the right spacecraft to the right company at the right time.

Going on three years after President Bush announced his plans to send human beings back to the moon and onto Mars, not a bit of metal had yet been cut on the ships that would make the trips. That’s not such a long time by government standards. But by three years after President Kennedy made his commitment to send men to the moon in the first place, we had completed the six flights of the Mercury program and were on about the business of Gemini. And Kennedy delivered his speech before we had any real idea of how to make the trip. So it was high time NASA pulled the trigger on the new spacecraft, and the fact that it did so yesterday was a welcome sign of a true commitment.

Lockheed Martin was a good choice for a few reasons. First of all, a NASA contract can be the sweetest of government plums. The projects can go on for decades (look at the 30-year shuttle program) and cost overruns are usually tolerated and even expected. That may not do the federal deficit any favors, but a company that can score a $2 billion deal and know full well that it may turn into $3 billion by the end of the contract term is a company with a lot of happy shareholders. Lockheed Martin has not shared much in the manned space program goodies lately — the big deals historically going to Boeing and Northrop Grumman — and it’s healthy for the industry if the wealth gets spread.

What’s more, Boeing, which had been considered the front-runner for the new contract, has hardly distinguished itself in space of late. It is the prime contractor for the incomplete and largely useless International Space Station, a project that was originally envisioned as a lean, $8 billion operation and is now projected to cost a cool $100 billion. That’s by no means all Boeing’s fault, but nor is it to the company’s credit.

Far more important is the ship itself. The shuttles have been pricey, lethal failures for a lot of reasons. They’re too complicated, too finicky, and they break too many rules of safe space travel. Until the shuttle, no human being had ever been launched into space with solid-fuel rockets — comparatively primitive motors that burn a sort of rubbery goo and can neither be throttled up and down nor shut off once they’re lit. The shuttle’s two external engines burn solid fuel, and it was one of those that destroyed the Challenger. Moreover, until the shuttle, the crew compartment of any manned ship had always been positioned at the very top of the rocket stack, keeping it away from debris that may shake itself off the booster on the way up. The shuttle orbiter sits rear of the nose of the external tank, and it’s hard foam from that tank that killed Columbia.

The Orion spacecraft, by contrast, is based on proven Apollo technology. It’s configured like a large Apollo: a conical crew compartment atop a cylindrical engine module. It will sit atop heavy-lift boosters that are modeled in part after the shuttle’s own liquid-fuel engines — far and away the best part of the old shuttle technology and the part most worth saving. Unlike Apollo, it will be stuffed with 21st century electronics and computers, and it will be cleverly reconfigurable, able to carry six astronauts into Earth orbit and four to the moon or Mars.

Even better, it will also rely on Apollo’s lunar landing technique, with a spidery lunar module like the beloved old LEMs still to come. The contractor for that one hasn’t been picked, but Northrop Grumman — whose Grumman Corporation granddaddy built the original LEM — would not be a bad choice.

The biggest worry space-watchers have is not whether the technology and the builders are sound; they are. It’s whether the political will is in place. There was a lot of heartburn in 2004 when President Bush announced his original timetable for the launch of the new vehicles: 2014 for the first, tentative Earth orbital flight, and 2020 for the first lunar landing. This called to mind the first President Bush’s 1989 challenge to put human beings on Mars by 2019 — a comfortably remote thirty years away. Hear anything of that ambitious plan since?

The first lunar landing program, from the inception of NASA to the final, Apollo 17 landing, spanned four presidents — Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon — and repeated changeovers in Congress. The same steadfastness will be required of present and future political leaders if the new ships are to get off the gorund. Anything less than a multi-generational commitment to the new program will waste the government’s money — and try the public’s patience.