Orion’s role of transporting US astronauts into space has been reduced to little more than an assumption it may one day be involved in human space exploration, after contractor Lockheed Martin effectively washed its hands of the project due to fears relating to termination liability. With key procurements cancelled, the Denver-based company ‘moved’ 600 engineers off the project, effectively leaving the vehicle in limbo.
Although the Program Of Record (POR) remains in place – due to the lack of Congressional approval for the much-maligned FY2011 budget proposal – NASA managers have effectively given up on any faint hope of implementing the long-term strategy that was centered around the marriage between Ares and Orion.
Orion was set to transport US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), and eventually on to destinations such as the moon and Mars, although the Augustine Commission’s report showed the architecture was on an “unsustainable path”, due to funding constraints and the resulting schedule delays, some of which were notably caused by continuous design changes – mainly driven by the shortcomings of the Ares I launch vehicle.
Both Ares and Orion were cancelled in President Obama’s FY2011 budget, prior to a token reprieve for a “dumbed down” Orion, know as the Crew Rescue Vehicle (CRV) – to be utilized as a lifeboat on the ISS, despite an already implemented evacuation plan via the use of two Soyuz vehicles, a plan that enables an ISS crew of six to depart from the Station in the event of an emergency.
As to how much work is being conducted on Orion as a CRV is unclear, given the vehicle has now suffered a double body blow – firstly via the removal of the majority of Orion work with NASA via the initial defunding action, which in turn sent work and funding to aid contractor Lockheed Martin’s efforts.
“Cx (Constellation) funding is being pulled back, that was going to JSC (Johnson Space Center) engineering, and being sent to Denver to support LM similar facilities/services,” noted a NASA memo in March, with sources noting the remaining Orion teams outside of Lockheed Martin have been vastly reduced in numbers, to the point some of the remaining engineers have become demoralized and have left for companies such as Bigelow.
The second blow is related to the billions of dollars it will cost to cancel the POR, with specific concerns at Lockheed Martin on the estimated value of contractor work required to close out the contract – otherwise known as termination liability.
The fallout has resulted in the removal of 600 workers from the Orion project at Lockheed Martin, its sub-contractors, along with a ripple effect being impacted the non-prime workforce.
“Given the revised interpretation of how to account for termination liability, LM and its subs will be moving 600 people off the contract. Also LM has halted several key procurements,” noted Orion manager Mark Geyer in an address to his workforce, which was acquired by L2.
While the language uses terms such as “moving” and “reducing”, Mr Geyer appears to intimate an actual loss of employment will be suffered via the fallout.
“Another fallout of this issue is that reductions in non-prime are also coming. These are all members of the team and have been a part of our successes and struggles over the last four years. Our thoughts are with them and their families as they have to deal with this reality,” Mr Geyer noted.
“There were no easy solutions left under the constraints we have been given. Despite all of these challenges and personal impacts, I am continually impressed by the dedication and creativity applied by the team to get through this difficult time. Even with these challenges we continue to move forward doing critically important work.”
As Mr Geyer alluded to, some work will continue with Orion. Also, despite the reductions suffered by Orion, he believes some stability – albeit at a reduced funding level – may be in the pipeline, via his opinion that the FY2011 budget proposal will remain in limbo, resulting in a continuing resolution, which he notes mirrors the level of funding Constellation is currently being drip-fed.
“This reduced funding level will put us near the level consistent with a continuing resolution for 2011 (which I understand is likely for much of 2011),” he added. “Therefore, while we are not out of the woods yet, I expect to see more stability after this latest round of cuts. We will be putting out guidance targets and content descriptions for us to update 2010 and plan for 2011.”
The Orion manager is also holding on to some hope that the vehicle may still grow into the crew transport it was intended to be, as the CRV effort at least avoids the full cancellation of Orion.
“Given the fact that Orion is in the 2010 appropriations and has been mentioned by the President in his KSC speech, it is certainly reasonable to assume that Orion (in some form) will emerge from this debate as the spacecraft that will take us to the new frontiers of human space exploration,” Mr Geyer added.
“Our near term task is to put the United States in the best position to have this system ready when needed.”
However, the Constellation Program (CxP) finds itself all-but muted when it comes to such aspirations, as seen via the removal of Cx manager Jeff Hanley – who was the only person making a concerted effort to find a potential backup plan which utilized Orion via a change to the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicle configuration, an Ares IV type vehicle that also allowed for growth into a Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV).
Mr Hanley’s removal from CxP was greeted with shock – as seen with the comments made on the forwarded e-mails of the news throughout NASA and its contractors, although Mr Geyer used his address to simply praise the departed manager.
“Jeff provided extraordinary leadership to the Constellation Program which has led to the amazing accomplishments we have achieved. Jeff has given all of his professional energy and commitment to this enterprise. I have enormous respect for his clear thinking, creative problem solving, great strategic sense, and personal integrity. He is also a great friend.”
“We will honor Jeff’s contribution by continuing to advance the exploration dream that we all have.”
Mr Geyer also welcomed Mr Hanley’s replacement, whilst noting the design phase name for the Orion CRV as Block 0. The ISS Orion was known as Block I, while the Orion that was to transport crew past Low Earth Orbit (LEO) was known as Block II.
“Dale Thomas will be acting Cx program manager. I have worked with Dale for many years and he is a consummate professional and highly qualified for this job. Also, in my discussions with Dale and (ESMD manger) Doug Cooke, I have been assured that we should remain on the plan we have including implementing the block 0 strategy. Thanks again for your dedication and hard work.”