NASA has awarded Lockheed Martin almost $3 billion to build three Orion capsules. This will allow the US space agency to return to the moon by 2024.

The new Lockheed Martin contract covers the first mission that will carry actual astronauts to the Moon by 2024. And also additional missions spanning ordering periods running up to September 30, 2030.

“With this award, NASA is ordering three Orion spacecraft for Artemis missions III through V for $2.7 billion. The agency plans to order three additional Orion capsules in Fiscal Year 2022 for Artemis missions VI through VIII, at a total of $1.9 billion,” according to a statement from the agency.

Each of the three capsules can carry four astronauts.

NASA can order six other capsules later.

“This contract secures Orion production through the next decade, demonstrating NASA’s commitment to establishing a sustainable presence at the Moon to bring back new knowledge and prepare for sending astronauts to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

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The Orion capsule must be able to bring astronauts to the Moon and back. It must also be capable of traveling to Mars and beyond.

“Orion is a highly capable, state-of-the-art spacecraft, designed specifically for deep space missions with astronauts, and an integral part of NASA’s infrastructure for Artemis missions and future exploration of the solar system,” Bridenstine added.

The Orion spacecraft consists of two parts with the same basic layout as the Apollo command and service module. The cone-shaped crew module will return the crew to Earth, and is the only part that is potentially reusable. The service module contains the primary propulsion and power system for Orion, but it’s not part of the new contract. The US space administration has partnered with the European Space Agency (ESA) to produce service modules for Orion.

However,  Lockheed is also set to develop a lunar lander and help build the so-called Gateway orbital station.

“During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown. It will travel 280,000 miles from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the Moon over the course of about a three-week mission,” NASA said in a 2018 statement. “Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before.”

NASA has scheduled the flight of the unmanned Artemis I mission for 2020. The first manned Artemis II flight is scheduled for 2022.

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