TITUSVILLE, Fla., July 15 (UPI) -- Lockheed Martin opened a new spacecraft facility Thursday to help build NASA's Orion lunar capsules near Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Lockheed Martin says the new STAR Center in Titusville is now a "digitally transformed factory of the future" that will help produce spacecraft to take astronauts to the moon. STAR stands for Spacecraft Test, Assembly and Resource.
"This represents the next level of commitment for NASA's and Lockheed Martin's exploration missions," said Paul Marshall, NASA assistant Orion program manager. "Our work here is just getting started, and in August, this place will be humming with activity."
NASA awarded Lockheed a $4.6 billion contract in 2019 to build six new Orion capsules. At 55,000 square feet, the spacecraft center will build large components for Orion, which still will be assembled on NASA property about 10 miles away.
"Large elements such as the heat shield and wiring harness will be built at the STAR Center and then transported for final integration," according to the company, which is based in Maryland.
Having the additional high-tech capability nearby will free up space at NASA's historic 600,000-square-foot Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout Building, built in 1964 for the Gemini and Apollo programs and renovated for $55 million in 2009.
The new building will allow a faster schedule for Orion construction than would otherwise have been possible, the company said.
"It's not just the building, but the flight that we are preparing for soon with Artemis I, which is so exciting," said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space. "We want to explore and we want to get Orion out there and the Artemis program."
The new facility will start building components for the Artemis III mission that is intended to return American astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2024, although that date is in question due to weak congressional funding.
Lockheed Martin spent 18 months and $20 million renovating the center, which formerly housed the Astronaut Training Experience tourist attraction.
Orion is designed for 21-day crewed journeys, but it can be fitted for longer missions to the moon or even Mars, according to Lockheed.
A test model of the Orion capsule has been to space, without astronauts aboard. It was launched in December 2014 and splashed down about 4 1/2 hours later in the Pacific Ocean.
The capsule includes deep space navigation and communication systems, advanced life support, radiation shielding and a heat shield designed to withstand 5,200 degrees F coming back from the moon at 24,700 mph.
Many people at the opening event Thursday said they remembered the building when it was a tourist attraction and hosted space camp programs.
"As a kid I remember running up and down this road, trying to find the best place to watch Apollo launches," state Rep. Thad Altman, R-Fla., said.