February 11, 2013
Lockheed Martin Space Systems, a longtime powerhouse in robotic spacecraft, is staking a larger position in human spaceflight as a way to stay busy while its big civil-space customers adjust to the new era of budget and political uncertainty.
The Littleton, Colo.-based unit will draw on its work with NASA's planned Orion crew capsule to help neighboring Sierra Nevada Corp. human-rate its Dream Chaser entry in NASA's commercial crew sweepstakes. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin crews at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the company built all of the aluminum-alloy tanks for the space shuttle program, will use expertise in composites gained in part from fighter aircraft work, to build the lightweight lifting body structure for the reusable commercial vehicle.
And the experience gained from decades of integrating European instruments and other hardware into scientific satellites and space probes will help company engineers and managers as they work to fit a European service module to the back of the Orion capsule. The efforts are designed to keep facilities the company has developed over decades working as steadily as possible while the spacecraft industry transitions into 21st century conditions.
“We're looking across human spaceflight for what other things can we do to bring our processes, people and experience in to level-load a facility better so that our costs are lower, so that we're more effective and efficient in what we do,” says Jim Crocker, Lockheed Martin vice president and general manager for civil space.
For the Orion contract, which it won under the George W. Bush administration's Constellation program of post-shuttle vehicles, the company built a high-fidelity Space Operations Simulation Laboratory in Littleton, where it can simulate lighting conditions and sensor performance for proximity operations, autonomous docking and touch-and-go “landings” at the asteroid that has since become the U.S. human objective in space (AW&ST Jan. 9, 2012, p. 44). Crocker says he is already in discussions with Sierra Nevada about using the simulation lab to test Dream Chaser prox ops and docking at the International Space Station (ISS), both autonomously and piloted.
The company also has worked with NASA's Orion program at Johnson Space Center to streamline the certification process required to ready Orion to carry NASA astronauts. Now it will apply that experience to help Sierra Nevada perform the same tasks as the U.S. space agency begins human rating the Dream Chaser and other commercial crew vehicles in the works. Among them are eliminating duplicate specifications, and reducing the “deliverables” NASA requires in the certification process.
“Some of these deliverables are heritage that probably go back to Mercury,” Crocker says. “We've just always gotten this particular data package, and it gets put on the list, and nobody was looking at it. [NASA] has been really receptive in saying 'you know, we don't want you to give us something we don't want [or] need. So let's save that money and put it into flight hardware.”