NASA has initiated a process that raises questions about the future of its Orion spacecraft. So far, this procedural effort has flown largely under the radar, because it came in the form of a subtle Request for Information (RFI) that nominally seeks to extend NASA’s contract to acquire future Orion vehicles after Exploration Mission-2, which likely will fly sometime between 2021 and 2023.
Nevertheless, three sources familiar with the RFI, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, told Ars there is more to the request than a simple extension for Orion’s primary contractor, Lockheed Martin. Perhaps most radically, the RFI may even open the way for a competitor, such as Boeing or SpaceX, to substitute its own upgraded capsule for Orion in the mid-2020s.
This RFI process, which originated in the Washington, DC-based office of the manager of NASA’s human spaceflight operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, appears to be an effort to keep the agency’s options open during a presidential transition. “This is NASA taking a breath and looking at alternatives,” one source told Ars. “Part of why they also did it is they are signaling to the next administration that they may be willing to look at alternatives.”
In a heated competition a decade ago, Lockheed Martin won the initial contract to design and develop the deep-space Orion spacecraft, which was supposed to fly its first crewed mission in 2014. While the contractor has had to manage several significant change requests, there is nonetheless growing frustration with Lockheed inside NASA. The agency has spent nearly $10 billion so far on Orion, and although there was an uncrewed test flight in 2014, the first human mission won’t come for at least five more years.
The new RFI states that Lockheed will continue with development of Orion through a second uncrewed flight set for late 2018 and Exploration Mission-2, the first crewed mission, as early as 2021. However, once this “base vehicle” configuration is established, the RFI signals NASA’s intent to find a less expensive path forward. “This RFI serves as an examination of the market, which is an initial step in pursuing any of the available acquisition strategies, including the exercising of existing options,” the document states.
Unlike a more formal “Request for Proposals,” the RFI was written in a deliberately vague way, sources told Ars, in order to generate a wide variety of responses from industry. The most simple interpretation is that the RFI represents something of a “stalking horse” to drive down Lockheed’s bid to build subsequent Orions during the operational phase of the spacecraft, when NASA begins to fly crews into deep space, likely to a deep-space habitat. As part of this, the RFI anticipates moving from the existing cost-plus model to a fixed-price contract.
“The NASA and Lockheed Martin team are approaching the end of Orion’s development phase having successfully tackled many of the toughest engineering challenges associated with deep space travel,” Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin’s Orion Program Manager, said in a statement to Ars. “Now, as outlined in Lockheed Martin’s response to NASA’s RFI, we’ve identified savings that will reduce the recurring production costs of Orion by 50 percent – and we aren’t stopping there. We believe the cost savings we’ve defined in our response will enable decades of affordable human space exploration.”
The RFI clearly leaves the door open to other alternatives, however. The original structure of NASA’s contract with Lockheed Martin is such that NASA “owns” the design work when it is completed, so another contractor, if it could demonstrate a compelling cost advantage, could take over for Exploration Mission-3 and beyond.
There are also hints of NASA expressing a willingness to consider other spacecraft to fulfill its needs in the 2020s and early 2030s, as it pushes crews into cislunar space, the area around the Moon. In contrast to a capsule designed for low-Earth orbit, a vehicle coming back from the Moon must have a more robust heat shield to tolerate higher temperatures during a return through the Earth’s atmosphere.
Some members of Congress have quietly been asking NASA why it is now funding the development of three capsules. There is Orion for deep space, as well as Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon for transport to the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit. It is possible one of these vehicles, or perhaps other concepts by companies such as Blue Origin or the Sierra Nevada Corporation, could be modified for a deep space return.
“If a respondent wishes to provide a broader input beyond the topics described in this RFI or beyond the technical scope of the Orion spacecraft, then it is requested alternate responses be submitted separately,” the RFI states. It adds that these “alternate approaches” should include an analysis of their cost implications for NASA.
The space agency posted the RFI in September and accepted responses through early October. NASA officials would not tell Ars how many companies responded. “This RFI was exploratory and intentionally open-ended and allowed industry the opportunity to provide feedback on a variety of areas, including interest in a potential future acquisition of Orion and perceived barriers to competition of Orion,” NASA spokeswoman Kathryn Hambleton told Ars.
Sources said the timing coincided with the end of President Obama’s term in office, when NASA officials would begin meeting with transition team members of a new president. For the Trump administration the space effort is being led by Bob Walker, a former congressman, and Mark Albrecht, a long-time adviser to Republicans on space policy. Neither Walker nor Albrecht have been effusive in their praise of the Orion spacecraft or the Space Launch System rocket that will lift it into space.
In October, during a forum at Rice University, Albrecht addressed the role transition teams play when a new president is preparing to take office. “The first thing a new administration will do is an independent review of the status of programs, and what they find will surprise no one,” Albrecht said. Inevitably, he added, an independent commission will discover an ever-growing NASA bureaucracy and underfunded, overambitious programs.
Ars understands that there are also discussions in Gerstenmaier’s office about issuing a similar RFI for the Space Launch System rocket, which has Boeing as its primary contractor. This would not be too great of a surprise, because at least two companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin, are privately developing heavy-lift alternatives that theoretically could offer significant savings to the large government rocket.
NASA would not confirm whether an RFI for the Space Launch System rocket will actually be issued, however. “Due to the sensitivity of the procurement process, NASA doesn’t comment on future procurement strategy,” Hambleton said. “Any future procurement activity will be worked through the standard process.”
Entering into the transition period between presidents, NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, has encouraged the next White House administration to continue support for Orion and the Space Launch System rocket, which account for more than $3 billion annually. Congress, too, has expressed a strong interest in continuing work on these vehicles.
However one source told Ars that it may become necessary to choose either the Orion capsule or NASA rocket in the coming years as the space agency looks to pare back its budget, and this might necessitate going to a less expensive, more privately developed vehicle. “Look,” this source said, “if you have to cancel a program, this is a responsible way of lining up a replacement.”
Without knowing the responses NASA received to the Orion RFI, it is not possible to know what options the agency—and the incoming Trump administration—will have when it comes to NASA’s flagship spacecraft and potentially its rocket. But what seems plain is that Gerstenmaier—a cautious, highly regarded engineer expected to remain at the agency after Bolden leaves along with the Obama administration—believes it prudent to offer incoming officials a suite of possibilities.