Lockheed Martin pips Northrop, Boeing to win NASA's $3.9 billion Orion contract

Mumbai: Defence and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin has won a $3.9 billion contract from the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) beating rivals Northrop Corporation and Boeing Co. The contract is for developing a new space vehicle, called Orion.

The Orion project, which will be the biggest change for NASA's space fleet in 30 years, will also mark America's next big push into interplanetary travel.

The new conical-shaped spaceships will take over from the aging space shuttle, which is set to retire in 2010. The Orion will be the primary vehicle for NASA's manned space programmes in the future. The 16.5-foot diameter, 25 tonne capsule will be able to accommodate six astronauts, twice as much as the space shuttle.

NASA plans to launch the Orion capsule on the new generation rocket, Ares, which is designed to put the spacecraft into low earth orbit of the International Space Station initially. NASA will develop larger versions of the spacecraft later.

The first manned Orion launch is slated for 2014 and a lunar landing not later than 2020. The Orion project is expected to revive the lunar programme that would be the launch pad for flights deeper into space, to the Red Planet and beyond - for human exploration of the solar system.

Lockheed will conduct the engineering and assembly work at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, respectively.