Late this afternoon NASA announced that it was making a significant modification to the Orion development contract with Lockheed Martin. The announcement of the modification, at a total cost of $385 million, was formally released at 4:00 pm, after Wall Street had shut down for the day.
The change in the contract will add two test flights of Orion's launch abort system, halt production of a pressurized cargo version of Orion, and most significantly, add two years to the design phase of Orion development - thus slipping the initial delivery of flight hardware.
The change in delivery date is something NASA says that it had planned to do for some time and is not directly related to recent budget issues. Nor is it tied, according to NASA, to any developmental difficulties in the Orion program itself. Rather, the issue is one of getting the best phasing of all of the elements - spacecraft and launch vehicle.
Early in his tenure at NASA, Mike Griffin wanted to try and get Orion delivered - and flown - as soon as possible - perhaps as early as 2012. According to NASA the initial development contracts for Orion pushed bidders to come up with an "aggressive" earliest possible delivery date for Orion hardware. Upon award, that date was set at 20 August 2011. This date was soon rendered moot after it became rather clear that NASA did not have the program maturity - or budget profile - to make it happen. Nonetheless, the 2011 date remained as an official target delivery date within the Orion program - until today.
In the ensuing years, as other elements of the Orion system - its Ares 1 launch vehicle - became more defined, NASA knew that it would need to relax some delivery dates so as to have all elements of the program synch up in an optimal way. Once the recent SRR (Systems Requirements Review) was completed, NASA had that picture and contract modification discussions with Lockheed Martin began in earnest.
In addition to better phasing of the overall Orion and Ares programs, this is also a lesson learned from the space station program wherein a lot of hardware was delivered early - often years early - and has been waiting in specialized storage facilities for its chance to fly. While the hardware itself is not operating in space, there is a significant cost associated with the workforce needed to assure that the hardware remains in perfect condition until it does fly. Delaying Orion delivery would reduce that cost significantly.
In addition to the delayed delivery of Orion's first space vehicle, NASA modified the Orion contract to add two additional abort tests. NASA had always carried two more such tests than Lockheed's original contract called for.
NASA has also deleted development of an unmanned, pressurized version of Orion, which would have been used for cargo deliveries to the International Space Station. The pressurized cargo version is no longer needed by NASA by virtue of the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) contracts awarded to SpaceX and Kistler for their own commercial ISS supply vehicles. However, design work will continue on the NASA cargo vehicle so as to have this capability in the agency's back pocket - just in case it is needed.