When it comes to space launch, it often feels like SpaceX makes all the headlines.
SpaceX is the only company routinely launching rockets to orbit and then landing them back on Earth. It's the only company that's figured out how to land rockets on ships at sea. It's a rocket company with its own internet network. Why, NASA even handed SpaceX the contract to return astronauts to the moon!
So yeah, here on Earth, SpaceX is kind of a big deal. But another company might be an even bigger deal on a different planet: Mars.
Stealing Musk's thunder
We've known for a long time that Mars is an obsession for SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Fact is, SpaceX's biggest recent achievement, the soon-to-be-orbited Starship reusable mega-rocket, was designed first and foremost as a vehicle to send colonists to Mars.
But SpaceX isn't the only company that's got Mars on its mind. Lockheed Martin (LMT -0.93%) has won not one, not two, but three separate NASA contracts for work on the Red Planet.
In the first and most important of these awards, Lockheed will be making the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), a key piece of NASA's plan to bring samples from the Martian surface back to Earth.
The MAV will be carried to Mars as early as 2026. Once there, it will await delivery of samples currently being collected by the Perseverance rover, then launch into Martian orbit. There the MAV will transfer the samples to the European Space Agency's (ESA) Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft for the trip back to Earth, with arrival expected sometime in the early to mid-2030s. (ESA awarded the Earth Return Orbiter contract, worth $554.5 million, to local aerospace champion Airbus in 2020.)
Separately, Lockheed announced that it has also been hired to build the "cruise stage" of NASA's Sample Retrieval Lander, the spaceship that will carry the MAV to Mars. Finally, Lockheed's third contract is to build the MAV's "Earth Entry System" -- the space capsule that will hold the samples on the final leg of their voyage, down through Earth's atmosphere to be collected by NASA.
What it means to Lockheed Martin
Lockheed will be paid $194 million for its work designing and building the MAV, which is destined to become the "first rocket fired off another planet," says NASA. The Sample Retrieval Lander cruise stage will net Lockheed another $35 million, and the Earth Entry System contract is currently valued at $2.6 million for preliminary design work.
In total, therefore, Lockheed might receive as little as $232 million for the several roles it's playing in retrieving Perseverance's rock, soil, and air samples from Mars -- or barely half the cash ESA will pay Airbus for building just the Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft.
Within the context of Lockheed Martin's overall space business, these three contracts may look tiny. Last year, space contributed more than $12 billion in revenue to Lockheed's top line, and as S&P Global Market Intelligence data confirm, at very respectable 9.3% operating profit margin.
Then again, money alone probably isn't of the greatest import here. More important are the bragging rights Lockheed Martin will get for becoming the first company to launch a rocket off of another planet, and the technical expertise the company will build from successfully completing the mission.
Although best known as a defense contractor, Lockheed Martin has historically been one of the nation's biggest players in space as well -- contributing, for example, the Atlas V rockets that remain (until the arrival of Vulcan at least) the workhorses of the United Launch Alliance space fleet. As SpaceX has grown bigger, however, and won more and more work from NASA, Lockheed's ability to remain on the cutting edge of space technology has diminished.
Successful completion of its missions on Mars will help to keep Lockheed Martin relevant in space, and help keep its $12 billion-a-year space franchise in business.