Lockheed Martin, which has already proposed sending NASA astronauts in an Orion spacecraft to the L2 point over the Lunar Farside, is planning a fairly aggressive test program for the Orion that includes an unmanned flight by 2013.
The unmanned test would be followed by a manned flight, either to an Earth-approaching asteroid or to lunar orbit, by 2015. This constitutes a great advance over the schedule first proposed by President Obama in his April 15 Kennedy Space Center speech, which suggested that a flight to an asteroid would only take place in 2025.
According to Florida Today:
“The aerospace giant plans to loft a NASA Orion spacecraft atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket that would blast off from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
“Flying unmanned, the Apollo-style capsule would be launched into a highly elliptical orbit about 5,000 miles from Earth.
“With the Orion zooming along at 20,500 mph, the trajectory would ‘match the hostile deep space environment and scorching reentry temperatures and dynamics that would be seen in a lunar or asteroid mission,’ said John Karas, vice president and general manager of human space flight for Lockheed Martin.”
The unmanned mission would be able to thoroughly test many of Orion’s systems in advance of a manned mission to either an Earth-approaching asteroid or lunar orbit. While the use of an existing rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, would suffice for the unmanned test, the manned missions would need to use the planned shuttle derived heavy lift vehicle now contemplated by the NASA Authorization bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama.
Besides getting a flight-ready Orion developed by 2013, the main challenge for conducting this test regime would be funding. President Obama had contemplated a much slower, less well-funded space exploration plan to replace the Constellation return to the Moon program that he ordered canceled. This program would have involved test flights of the Orion sometime in the early 2020s, with a manned flight to an asteroid in 2025.
Congress might also look at the aggressive flight test program with some mixed feelings. While the schedule is certainly a vast improvement over that first contemplated by the administration, there will be questions of cost in an era of unprecedented budget deficits.
One silver lining, from the point of view of Lockheed Martin, is that the Orion/Delta IV Heavy combination might be useful for resupply and crew transfer missions to the International Space Station. This would suggest that the nearly $6 billion government subsidy to companies such as SpaceX and Boeing might become a source of cost savings.
Members of Congress, including Republicans who will now be in charge of NASA funding in the House, have expressed skepticism over the idea of commercializing space transportation services and whether the Obama approach is the best way to go about it. The Lockheed Martin test plan may provide an excuse to terminate or at least greatly scale back that program, thus not only achieving cost savings, but helping to salvage the space exploration part of NASA that was damaged by the Obama administration’s decision to cancel Constellation.
Sources: NASA Mission to the Lunar Farside Proposed by Lockheed Martin, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, November 24rd, 2010
Lockheed Plans Orion Test Flight, Todd Halvorson, Florida Today, November 25th, 2010