Boldly choosing Lockheed spells the end of an era

In a surprise move NASA has chosen Lockheed Martin over the Northrop Grumman, Boeing team that represented the legacy companies that built the US space programme’s previous manned spacecraft. Boeing bought Rockwell International, the Shuttle’s developer and manufacturer in the 1970s and 1980s, in the 1990s.
Today Boeing provides the manned Orbiter vehicle and integrates it with the Lockheed Martin shuttle external tank and the ATK solid rocket boosters for NASA. It’s also an equal partner in the Shuttle ground operations joint venture, United Space Alliance, with Lockheed. Few companies like Boeing can boast over 30 years of manned spacecraft operation experience.
One former Boeing Shuttle engineer ranted at me about the decision, reminding me of all the NASA missions that have gone wrong with Lockheed’s involvement. 
Lockheed’s involvement in NASA’s Mars Polar Lander, which disappeared upon landing on the red planet; and the Genesis capsule that crashed to Earth; and the abandoned single stage to orbit X-33 vehicle all added to a quiet industry consensus that the winner was likely to be Northrop/Boeing.
The Lockheed choice therefore suggests a NASA strategy to abandon the industrial arrangement it has had for three decades for Shuttle.This is probably because Shuttle represents an expensive programme and NASA has been given a presidential policy of going back to the Moon, but with no substantial increase in its budget. Since the 2004 president George W. Bush vision for space exploration announcement about the return to the Moon NASA officials have emphasised the life cycle cost factor as foremost in their analyses.
Another Shuttle programme veteran was concerned about the impact on job losses. Admitting that Shuttle had been a “jobs programme” for way too long he thought a Northrop win would have made a lot of people feel better about the future.
Interestingly NASA suddenly said earlier this year that the Orion launching Ares I’s upper stage and the Ares V’s Earth departure stage, would be made at its Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF). This is managed for NASA by Lockheed. Following the contract win Lockheed has announced it will build major Orion structures at MAF.
There is a possibility that NASA is looking to place its entire space transportation system with one company in an attempt to drive down costs.When NASA administrator Michael Griffin is ready to say that the transition from Shuttle to Orion is the agency’s biggest challenge, the choice of Lockheed is a bold move.

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