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Space Shuttle Winds Down, Project Orion Winds Up

shuttle-orion

Just two scheduled Space Shuttle flights remain before the
most complex machine ever made is grounded, and support companies are now
restructuring their staffing levels. Good thing, then, that Orion is on track.

The United Space Alliance, a Texas-based company owned
jointly by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, has been involved in Space Shuttle
operations since its inception in 1995, and USA’s big contract with NASA comes to a
close on September 30, 2010 with the end of Space Shuttle operations. As such the company’s announced it’s laying off about 17% of its 8,100 employee list. The company’s CEO Virginia Barnes is confident about its future, however–and
given the extremely wide range of expertise it has, this optimism is probably
well-placed.

USA may find itself a new contract with the crew vehicle
program, Orion program. The capsule’s development is being continued in the
hope that it may provide a launch system to get astronauts up to the International
Space Station, as well as act as an emergency escape vehicle. Today the
capsule’s NASA/Lockheed Martin development team announced that it had
successfully passed the Phase1 Safety Review, which is a critical step on the
path to getting a full human spaceflight rating for the system. It’s a big
step, and suggests the system may be ready for its first orbital tests as soon
as 2013.

But with the Shuttle’s grounding scheduled for early 2011,
that’s still more than a two year gap in human flight capability. Will
President Obama’s plans for a more commercial space industry help it minimize
this embarrassing hiatus?

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. KE