Aerospace giant and longtime NASA ally Lockheed Martin has a plan for setting up a fully staffed Mars Base Camp orbiting around the red planet by 2028, and the new Orion spacecraft is going to play a key role in exploring Mars and its moons — and keeping the astronauts safe.

In a presentation on Wednesday night at the 67th International Astronautical Congress, two men from Lockheed Martin explained why Orion is going to wear so many hats at the Mars Base Camp.

“I’m an Orion guy,” Rob Chambers, a Systems Engineering Senior Manager at Lockheed Martin, said of his fandom of NASA’s first new human spacecraft in a decade.

Orion plays a key role,” agreed Dominic A. Antonelli, a NASA astronaut and the acting director for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Programs Civil Space and Space Systems Company. “This is no coincidence. It’s by design to leverage all the capabilities that Orion has just from building her to meet her existing set of requirements.”

The spacecraft features a number of “redundant and reliable” features, including avionics technology, radiation hardening, life support systems, and deep space communications and guidance systems. Factoring these into the Mars Base Camp, which will support six astronauts as they study the planet and prepare for an eventual Martian landing, allows the engineers to “avoid an entire other developmental cycle on the next element.”

This is what Mars Base Camp will look like.
This is what Mars Base Camp will look like.

Orion will serve as a command and control module for the Mars transfer, Mars base camp, and as the excursion vehicle that astronauts will travel in as they venture to Mars and its two moons, Phobos and Deimos.

Chambers said they’ve been asked why they’re using Orion to jet to Mars and its moons rather than a specialized landing or observational craft. After all, the Apollo module didn’t visit the moon, the lunar lander did. Really, Chambers said, it’s not worth it.

Sure, Orion has a heavy heat shield that serves no purpose in Mars’s almost nonexistent atmosphere, but the extra cost of schlepping it around space pales in comparison to designing something else.

“We could pull that heat shield off,” Chambers said, before asking a rhetorical follow-up question. “How much does that save you versus developing an entire new spacecraft?”

Plus, he explained, it just feels more secure to always be in a craft that could make it back to Earth rather than ever needing to meet up with it to return.

“I kind of like to have my parachute with me instead of having to rendezvous with it on the way home,” he half-joked.

Photos via Lockheed Martin