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Fiscal Notes Logo January/February 2008

From Texas to the Moon

Orion will boost state economy

by Bruce Wright

By the year 2020, a manned spacecraft called Orion should leave Earth’s orbit, bound for the moon. The mission will be man’s first venture into deep space in nearly 50 years. And Texas workers will have played an important role in getting it there.

Orion is the spearhead of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) “Vision for Space Exploration,” a long-term commitment to the human exploration of the moon and Mars first announced by the Bush administration in January 2004. The Houston area’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center is managing the project.

Orion’s development will bring several thousand new jobs and other significant benefits to the Texas economy, which already nets about 17,000 jobs and more than $3 billion in annual spending from NASA operations.

Orion and Constellation

The Orion spacecraft is part of a larger program called Constellation, an initiative intended to lead both to renewed exploration of the moon and eventually a human Mars mission. As planned, Constellation also will include two new rockets, both partly based on existing Space Shuttle technology: the Ares 1, a slender, two-stage vehicle designed to carry Orion into orbit; and the Ares V, a mammoth “heavy lifter” roughly the size of the old Saturn V, which will carry a lunar lander.

The Orion vehicle will bear a strong resemblance to the Apollo command and service modules. Like Apollo, Orion will have a launch abort system able to carry the craft clear of any emergency during takeoff, making it potentially safer than the shuttle.

According to NASA, Orion will be much roomier than Apollo, providing its crews of four to six astronauts with two-and-a-half times as much room as the earlier vehicle.

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, will be its electronics. While Apollo went to the moon with less computing power than today’s cheapest cell phone, Orion will have a full array of the latest data technology and avionics systems.

Bay Area Benefits

Orion will bring significant benefits to Houston’s Bay Area, says Bob Mitchell, aerospace marketing director for the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership. Lockheed Martin Corp., a major contractor for the Orion program, plans to create about 900 new jobs in the area and to make $68 million in new capital investments.

Lockheed Martin’s stake in the area increased considerably due to aggressive courting by state and local officials. The company initially proposed to create 350 to 400 jobs in the region.

“Originally, the company was just going to do limited design and development work in Texas,” Mitchell says. “But the work that Lockheed Martin is going to be doing here now is developing all of the software and avionics for the entire program. This is a much bigger piece of the pie than we ever had on the shuttle when it was originally developed.”

“Houston’s base of skilled aerospace workers, experienced technicians and strong community support are unique and hard to beat,” says John Karas, vice president for Human Space Flight at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “Combine that with the strong support and willingness of the state and local communities and business organizations to partner with Lockheed Martin through economic incentives, and it made perfect sense for us to establish our Orion program office in Houston.”

New Jobs, New Workers

The Orion program’s impact will extend well beyond the Lockheed Martin work force.

“It’s all in the jobs that will support those 900 new jobs,” says Mitchell. “Local businesses benefit the most – the local builder, drugstores and supermarkets all add new employees. It snowballs.” Bay Area Houston estimates that the Orion project will generate an additional 2,600 jobs in the area and more than $535 million in annual spending.

Lockheed Martin also plans to make significant commitments to Texas educational institutions to begin preparing a new generation of aerospace workers.

“The need to develop and train engineers, scientists and mathematicians is a compelling requirement for NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration,” says Cleon Lacefield, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for Project Orion. “At the University of Houston at Clear Lake and the surrounding Clear Creek Independent School District, we will take advantage of their growing expertise in software and power systems. The students will develop and deliver power system test beds and math models for the Orion program.

“We’re also establishing similar programs at the University of Texas at El Paso,” Lacefield continues. “And since today’s elementary school students will form the nucleus of tomorrow’s high-tech work force, we plan to develop cooperative programs with school districts in the greater Houston area.”

The ultimate earthbound benefits of the new space initiative, though, may come from technologies not yet imagined.

“There are going to be new industries that will be developed because of the Constellation program,” Mitchell says. “To get back to the moon and stay on it for long periods of time is going to require a lot of new technology.

“It’s going to require new types of fuel cells,” he says. “There’s going to have to be a habitat built, which is another new industry we’ve never had before. The technology that’s going to be developed through those activities is going to create a lot of new industry in this community.”

Back to the Future

In the space community, excitement about Orion is growing.

“We’re very proud to be partnered with NASA and with the state of Texas on the Orion program as we embark upon the most exciting space adventure yet to unfold,” says Lockheed’s Karas. “Since the days of Apollo and before, Texas has played a central role in our nation’s space program. Today, we’re ready to take the next leap forward.”

“What it means is the reality of going back to the moon, to Mars and beyond,” says Mitchell. “We are a technology-driven economy in a global market. That’s who we are, and we’ve got to stay in front of everybody else. And space exploration is a driver in that technology.” FN

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