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Rocky Mountain News September 01, 2006

Lockheed victory worth up to $8.2B

By Roger Fillion

Lockheed Martin Corp. landed a high-profile NASA contract to design and build a spacecraft to return humans to the moon for the first time since the Apollo program in 1972.
Lockheed - led by its Jefferson County operations - bested a Northrop Grumman-Boeing team to lay claim to the new Orion spacecraft program. NASA ultimately wants to use Orion to transport astronauts to Mars.

The contract could generate up to $8.2 billion through 2019, according to NASA, although budget and political uncertainties raise questions about Orion's future. The award's initial value is put at $3.9 billion.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Jefferson County oversaw the crafting of Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed's voluminous Orion proposal. The contract is expected to prove a boon for the Denver area, generating about 600 mainly high- paid engineering jobs here, according to Lockheed. That's double previous estimates.

"It establishes Denver as a human spaceflight center," said John Stevens, director of business development for Lockheed's Orion program. "It's a generation of engineers that will be employed on this."

Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., estimated the overall economic impact of the new jobs for the Denver area would exceed $2 billion over a decade.

"The jobs are great," said Clark, noting that aerospace jobs in Colorado pay about $93,000 a year. "It's the highest-paying industry in the state."

Lockheed Martin Corp. employs about 10,000 workers in Colorado, including 4,800 in the Denver area who work for the Space Systems division.

About 150 employees here worked on Lockheed's proposal for NASA.

With the contract now in hand, local Lockheed engineers will be in charge of designing Orion's vast network of components, linking together the spacecraft's capsule, service module, engines and launch-abort system.

NASA is looking to Orion as the initial stage of President Bush's two-decade, $230 billion vision to revive this country's manned space exploration program.

Orion - dubbed by NASA's chief as "Apollo on steroids" - would be the first space vehicle to return Americans to the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972.

The new spacecraft will be deployed after NASA retires the space shuttle in 2010. NASA said Thursday it wants Orion's first manned flight to the international space station to occur in September 2014.

The spacecraft's first lunar flight is scheduled for no later than 2020.

Orion will resemble an oversized, bell-shaped Apollo capsule. The 66-foot-long spacecraft will accommodate four astronauts during a moon mission and six crew members for flights to the international space station and Mars.

The spacecraft also could be configured to transport pressurized cargo.

While the Denver area is expected to gain about 600 new jobs, Lockheed plans to shift its main hub of operations for building Orion to Houston from Jefferson County, where the company will be "co-located" with NASA's Johnson Space Center.

The move is expected to generate 1,000 to 1,200 jobs there.

Lockheed also plans to perform final assembly and testing on Orion at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. Lockheed facilities in Michoud, La., will be used to build large structural components.

Industry experts had considered Lockheed to be the underdog because of its relative lack of experience in manned spaceflight.

What's more, Lockheed engineers were forced back to the drawing board last September after NASA endorsed the type of next-generation spacecraft championed by Northrop Grumman and Boeing.

The last time NASA awarded a manned spaceship contract to Lockheed Martin was in 1996 for a space plane 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.

In picking Lockheed, NASA bypassed Apollo throwbacks Northrop Grumman of Los Angeles and its chief subcontractor Boeing of Chicago. A Northrop Grumman predecessor built the Apollo lunar lander. Companies bought by Boeing built the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury capsules, as well as Skylab and the space shuttle.

"It means they finally will be the provider of a manned space vehicle," aerospace industry analyst Paul Nisbet, president of JSA Research, said of Lockheed. "Undoubtedly, it's something they've wanted for a good 30 years."

Nisbet also said that considerable bragging rights will accompany the award.

"No question about it - for probably the next 20 or 30 years," he said. "It's sort of like Boeing providing Air Force One to the president. You get a free advertisement every time."

NASA officials sought to downplay Lockheed's history and relative lack of experience with manned spaceflight.

"This is a new generation of engineers and technicians that are going to be developing this spacecraft," Scott Horowitz, associate administrator of NASA's exploration systems mission directorate, told a news conference in Washington, D.C.

But potential clouds exist on Orion's future. Budget demands posed by the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina cleanup have made some question the wisdom of returning humans to the moon, and later to Mars.

NASA's handling of the program to date also has encountered criticism from the Government Accountability Office, which warned in a July report that the program's cost could balloon.

U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican who chairs the House Science Committee, called the GAO report a "cause for concern." He also said Congress needs to keep "a close eye" on Orion's costs.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, frets that NASA isn't budgeting enough money for the program.

"My concern is that five years from now you're going to end up with no shuttle and no replacement," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright 2006, The E.W. Scripps Co.