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.”

That streamlined approach will also apply to the way NASA and Lockheed Martin are handling the upcoming first flight test of Orion hardware. Instead of conducting the test, NASA is buying the test data from Lockheed Martin, and leaving it to the company to generate it. Experimental test flight No. 1 (EFT-1) is scheduled to lift off in September 2014 on a Delta IV heavy on a highly elliptical trajectory that will bring its instrumented Orion test article back into the atmosphere at 80% of the speed it would see on a lunar return. The test is designed to gather early flight data on 10 critical parameters, including how much margin is needed in the ablative Avcoat thermal-protection material on the capsule's reusable composite and titanium heat shield.

Crocker says the shield, fabricated in Littleton, is being readied for shipment to a Textron facility in Massachusetts this week. The EFT-1 launch vehicle is being built at the United Launch Alliance factory in Decatur, Ala., and the adaptor that will join the Orion to the Delta upper stage is being welded at nearby Marshall Space Flight Center. The integrated test lab in Littleton that allows hardware- and software-in-the-loop simulations has just been powered up for the first time, he says.

“By doing this the way we did we believe we were able to accelerate it a little bit,” he says, noting that the launch vehicle is either the pacing item or “right on the critical path” for getting the test flight off on schedule.

Sierra Nevada, under a $212.5 million Space Act agreement with NASA to develop the Dream Chaser, is also getting ready for the first free flight test of the test article it built in-house at its Louisville, Colo., factory. That helicopter drop from 12,000 ft. over Edwards AFB, Calif., is expected to demonstrate that the vehicle can glide to a runway landing. Jim Voss, Sierra Nevada program manager for the Dream Chaser, says the atmospheric test article will accelerate to about 300 kt. before touching down for a horizontal landing at 180 kt. Depending on test results, the company plans between 2-5 more of the 30-40-sec.-long tests.

Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada's Space Systems unit, notes the competitively awarded Lockheed Martin deal is a “significant, multi-million-dollar long-term contract” that is likely to expand as the project advances.

“We're going to combine the knowledge that Lockheed Martin has done through their work to date on the Orion program and around their entire space [and aircraft] portfolio with what we're doing,” he says.

Lockheed's experience in integrating robotic spacecraft hardware from around the world will prove beneficial as it works with EADS Astrium to meld propulsion/power hardware from the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) into the Orion service module it had originally planned to build itself. That hardware will include the narrow rectangular solar arrays that generate power for ESA's ATV when it delivers cargo to the ISS.

NASA has accepted the ATV hardware for the Orion service module in lieu of cargo deliveries with ATVs as ESA's barter payment for the U.S. portion of common systems operations costs on the ISS. Under the deal, reached late last year after the ESA ministerial conference in Naples, Italy, ESA will work with NASA to build one service module using ATV components and a surplus space shuttle orbital maneuvering system engine.

The agreement, which also includes ATV components for a second Orion service module, will cause a marked change in the appearance of the Orion concept that Lockheed Martin used to win the NASA capsule contract initially. Instead of the twin circular solar arrays the company proposed—the “Mickey Mouse Ears” that have been featured in most concept illustrations of the Orion ever since—the four narrow European arrays will be mounted aft of the crew cabin in the distinctive X-shaped configuration carried on the ATV. However, those European arrays may not survive the integration process, which Crocker describes as being at the “mid-year preliminary design review” stage.

“We've spent a lot of time and effort getting the mass down on this system,” he says. “That's one example of a place where mass can easily grow again. We didn't have the flex arrays there because they were cute. [They were] there for loads, and loads translate into mass.”

Still NASA sees the European service module as a significant break with the past, allowing an international partner into the transportation “critical path” that was denied them under NASA's old Constellation program.

“For us it's kind of a pathfinder for engagement at that level, so the other partners looking around can say 'OK, we're having this nice dialogue about goals and objectives, but what does that really mean in terms of us being willing to play,'” says Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator for policy and plans in NASA's human-exploration directorate. “Here we've shown that we've found [a way] for an international partner to come in and provide a piece of hardware.”

While conceding that he'd like the workshare that will go to Europe instead, Crocker agrees that in the long term the combined approach should benefit all concerned.

“We're fully supportive of this,” he says. Bringing Europe in helps make it more affordable for all of us.”