NASA’s Orion spacecraft program gets a multibillion-dollar vote of support

The Orion crew capsule meant for NASA’s uncrewed Artemis 1 mission around the moon and back is being prepared for its flight. (NASA Photo / Radislav Sinyak)
The Orion crew capsule meant for NASA’s uncrewed Artemis 1 mission around the moon and back is being prepared for its flight. (NASA Photo / Radislav Sinyak)

NASA says it’s ordering three more Orion spacecraft for missions to the moon, at a cost of $2.7 billion — and plans to order as many as nine more by 2030.

Today’s announcement signals NASA’s long-term commitment to its Artemis program for lunar exploration and settlement, with a crewed lunar landing planned for as early as 2024.

The Orion spacecraft for that mission, known as Artemis 3, is included in the newly announced order, along with the spacecraft for Artemis 4 and 5.

“This contract secures Orion production through the next decade, demonstrating NASA’s commitment to establishing a sustainable presence at the moon to bring back new knowledge and prepare for sending astronauts to Mars,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a news release. “Orion is a highly-capable, state-of-the-art spacecraft, designed specifically for deep space missions with astronauts, and an integral part of NASA’s infrastructure for Artemis missions and future exploration of the solar system.”

Two Artemis missions are scheduled to precede the landing, and the spacecraft for those missions — Artemis 1 and 2 — are already in development. Artemis 1 would be an uncrewed trip around the moon and back, currently set for the 2020-2021 time frame. Artemis 2 would trace a similar trajectory in 2023, but with a crew.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the Orion program, which is managed by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The newly awarded contract, known as the Orion Production and Operations Contract, lays out a schedule for ordering as few as six and as many as 12 spacecraft by Sept. 30, 2030.

Orion spaceships for Artemis 6 through 8 would be ordered during fiscal year 2022 at a total cost of $1.9 billion. NASA said ordering the spacecraft in groups of three optimizes efficiencies for production.

NASA plans to phase in spacecraft reusability, starting with the reuse of interior components from Artemis 2 on the Artemis 5 Orion. The Artemis 3 crew module would be reflown on Artemis 6, NASA said.

The first six spacecraft would be acquired on a cost-plus basis, with a firm fixed price to be negotiated for follow-up orders.

Today’s NASA announcement was hailed by members of Texas’ congressional delegation, including both U.S. senators. “This is a great day for the men and women at Johnson Space Center,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a member of the Senate’s space subcommittee. “They are crucial to our national space program, and have an undeniable legacy and record of success in advancing America’s leadership in the human exploration of space.”

Orion spacecraft would be launched on NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System, another multibillion-dollar development program that has Boeing as the prime contractor for the rocket’s core stage and avionics.

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