WASHINGTON – In a setback to Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) and Boeing Co. (BA), Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) surprised aerospace industry observers by landing the multibillion-dollar contract to build NASA's manned lunar spaceship.
The nation's space agency on Thursday selected the Bethesda, Md., company to build the Orion space craft, though it usually builds unmanned rockets.
NASA plans to use the Orion crew exploration vehicle to replace the space shuttle fleet, take astronauts to the moon and perhaps to Mars. Unlike Apollo and earlier spacecraft perched atop rockets, it will be reusable. NASA estimated the cost at $7.5 billion through 2019 for likely eight separate spaceships.
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In picking Lockheed Martin for Orion, described by NASA's chief as "Apollo on steroids," the agency bypassed Apollo throwbacks Northrop Grumman of Los Angeles and its chief subcontractor Boeing of Chicago. Northrop Grumman's predecessor built the Apollo lunar lander. Companies bought by Boeing built the Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury capsules, Skylab and the space shuttle.
"NASA decided to do something different and go with a company that has not been in manned space before, sort of spreading the wealth and making sure they've got two contractors that know the manned space business," said aerospace industry analyst Paul Nisbet, president of JSA Research.
Lockheed Martin built several unmanned probes, including: 1998's Lunar Prospector; 1976 Viking probes of Mars; Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which entered the red planet's orbit earlier this year; and the 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter, which crashed because of a Lockheed Martin/NASA mismatching of metric and English measurement units.
The last time NASA awarded a manned spaceship contract to Lockheed Martin was in 1996 for a spaceplane that was supposed to replace the space shuttle. NASA spent $912 million and the ship, called X-33, never got built because of technical problems.
Lockheed Martin Vice President John Karas said his company will succeed with Orion compared to its failure with X-33, because "we're not shooting as far... I'd say it (Orion) is within reach."
While Orion won't break much new technological ground, Karas said Lockheed is pleased because of where Orion is going: "For me it's about exploring; it's about adventure. It's great to be with NASA and go out and explore."
Doug Cooke, a NASA deputy associate administrator, said Lockheed Martin was chosen over the competing team of Northrop Grumman and Boeing because the design is "achievable."
"This is a design that is based on known capabilities. We know that this can be built so there are some differences there, perhaps," he said.
Although all of NASA's 10 centers will provide engineering support on Orion, the majority of the work will be at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and final assembly will be completed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Joan Underwood said the Orion project will create about 2,300 new jobs: some 1,200 in Houston; 600 in Colorado, 300 in Florida and 200 in Louisiana.
Before the announcement Lockheed Martin released few details about its proposal. The plan was heavily open-ended, allowing NASA the ultimate decision on reusability of Orion and landing sites.
Lockheed Martin's initial proposal was vastly different from what NASA wanted. Its first submission looked more like the since-abandoned X-33 spaceplane and less like a capsule. NASA told Lockheed Martin it wanted an Apollo-like capsule, so the company changed its proposal.
If all goes well, the first test flight of Orion will be September 2014 and astronauts could return to the moon by late 2019 or 2020, NASA estimates. Karas said, if asked, his company could make the first flight in 2013.
Orion will be the Apollo capsule-like replacement for the 25-year-old space shuttle fleet that is supposed to retire in four years, after completion of the international space station.
"Space is no longer going to be a destination that we visit briefly," NASA associate administrator Scott Horowitz said Thursday. "We're going to learn to live off the land like the pioneers did."
This is hardly the first time NASA has made a big deal over a next-generation spaceship. Since the 1980s, NASA has spent about $4.8 billion on shuttle follow-up ships that never were built, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the independent auditing arm of Congress.
This time it's different, NASA claims. That's because after the Columbia accident in 2003, President Bush proposed a massive exploration plan. It would put astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972, with plans for a home base. The plan also would ultimately send people to Mars.
Orion is just part of an exploration program called Constellation that includes the Ares I and V rockets that will power the Orion capsule and a cargo vehicle into orbit and beyond.
The program will reduce the risk of a fatal accident to astronauts from 1-in-200 currently for the shuttle to 1-in-2000 for the new Constellation program, Orion project manager Skip Hatfield said last week.
In July, the GAO warned that NASA was heading down the wrong path in choosing an Orion-builder by late August or early September.
"This approach increases the risk that the project will encounter significant cost overruns, schedule delays and decreased capability," the GAO warned.
The Orion spaceship will look familiar to the baby boomer set.
NASA told the contractors to build a capsule that looks just like Apollo and can carry four astronauts to the moon and six to the international space station orbiting Earth. It should have a service module that brings it to the moon.