Lockheed Martin, which is manufacturing the Orion spacecraft for NASA’s deep space missions, plans to study whether some commercial payloads could fly along for the ride toward the Moon. The company says it expects to have some limited capacity inside the Orion spacecraft, as well as space outside the spacecraft for CubeSats, experiments, or other privately developed payloads.
“We’d like to go understand what market interest there would be in using Orion during the exploration missions for commercial, static payloads mounted externally or internally,” Rob Chambers, Lockheed’s director of Human Spaceflight Strategy for Commercial Civil Space, said in an interview with Ars.
Lockheed has partnered with NanoRacks, a company that has helped to commercialize access to the International Space Station, to complete a privately funded study to determine the level of commercial interest in such an opportunity. Once Lockheed completes the market analysis, likely late next spring or early summer, it will meet with the space agency. “NASA is very interested in the data we have, but they’re not committing to doing anything yet,” Chambers said.
In terms of funding, Lockheed would act as something like a broker, identifying commercial deals, integrating the payloads into the Orion spacecraft, for a fee. Much, if not most, of the revenue for any of the commercial payloads would ultimately go to NASA. The company is trying to determine whether payloads could fly as soon as the mid-2020 launch of Orion’s Exploration Mission-1, an uncrewed flight around the Moon.
Although Orion is a fairly roomy capsule, at least in comparison to the Russian Soyuz or Apollo Command Module, there still is a finite amount of volume inside after accounting for four crew members, their supplies, and life-support equipment. Chambers estimated that about one-half of a cubic meter of volume would be available inside Orion for secondary, commercial payloads, weighing tens to potentially hundreds of kilograms. Potentially, astronaut time could be devoted to commercial experiments inside the spacecraft.
The biggest constraint on Orion, however, is mass. This is because the landing parachutes have limits. The Orion spacecraft and service module, therefore, have a more generous capacity for payloads carried outside the vehicle. Beneath the crew module and crew module adapter lies the Orion service module. During launch, this area is shrouded by a protective fairing, which is jettisoned once in space.
This protected area, beneath the crew module area, could provide a few square meters of volume, Chambers said, and “several” hundred kilograms for commercial payloads. “It’s just a matter of fitting the payloads into the available volume, Chambers said. These payloads would not return to Earth with the Orion capsule.
So what kinds of things might fly? Lockheed isn’t sure—this is one reason why they’re doing the study—but Chambers said the company had some possible customers in mind. Perhaps most simply, the spacecraft might deploy CubeSats as the Orion spacecraft heads out to the Moon, either in a geostationary transfer orbit or closer to the Moon. (Injection into a lunar orbit may be possible, but Lockheed officials could not say for sure).
Chambers said the company might also fly radiation experiments, or materials applications that need a “high quality” hard vacuum not available in low-Earth orbit. They also believe there may be philanthropists interested in lunar science. Perhaps, he said, a start-up company might aspire to build a GPS-like constellation of satellites around the Moon and sell that navigation data to NASA and other commercial companies.
Jeff Manber, the founder of NanoRacks who will help Lockheed with its study, said he welcomed Lockheed’s openness to commercialization of spaceflight assets. Manber’s company has helped lead the way toward helping NASA and its traditional contractors find new ways to bring smaller ideas with commercial ideas into space.
“I have total respect that Lockheed is engaged to look at a possible commercial pathway,” Manber told Ars. “I’ve long argued that capitalism should not stop at low-Earth orbit.”