The spacecraft that could return astronauts to the moon got one step closer to liftoff in September, as NASA announced it finalized a contract to order up to 12 Orion space capsules from aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.
Littleton-area engineers are the primary group developing Orion, said Lockheed spokesman Gary Napier.
“That development work will continue for a few more years even though the production contract was just awarded,” Napier said. “Once we're fully underway with production of Orion, we will still have the primary engineering support for Orion and each of its individual missions here in the Denver area.”
The Orion spacecraft looks similar to the bell-shaped capsules that took astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s, according to NASA. Development of the program began in the mid-2000s as the Space Shuttle program was being phased out. Much of the spacecraft's engineering, design and testing are taking place at Lockheed's facilities in south Jefferson County, west of Littleton.
The capsule is the lynchpin of NASA's Artemis program, which could return astronauts to the moon's surface as early as 2024, ahead of crewed missions to Mars.
NASA has ordered three Orion spacecraft for upcoming Artemis missions for $2.7 billion, according to a news release. The agency plans to order another three in 2022 for $1.9 billion, and has the ability to order six more for future missions.
Lockheed and NASA recently announced the completion of the Orion module developed for the Artemis I mission, an uncrewed flight to the moon. Work is underway in Florida on the spacecraft for Artemis II, a crewed mission that will orbit the moon but won't land. Artemis III, which will land on the moon, will likely carry the first woman to set foot on the lunar surface.
“No other spacecraft in the world can keep humans alive hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth for weeks at a time with the safety features, crew accommodations, technical innovations and reliability that Orion provides,” Mark Kirasich, the Orion program manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a news release.
Lockheed officials said they're proud of the new capsule, and excited to see where it will go.
“It's a spaceship like none other,” said Mike Hawes, Lockheed's Orion program manager, in a statement. “We've designed it to do things no other spacecraft can do, go to places no astronaut has been, and take us into a new era of human deep space exploration.”
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