WASHINGTON — NASA is seeking proposals to begin the next phase of Artemis lunar lander services, moving quickly despite unresolved protests about its selection of SpaceX to develop a lunar lander.
NASA issued a request for proposals July 1 for what it calls “Sustainable Human Landing System Studies and Risk Reduction.” The solicitation, Appendix N of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, will fund initial studies of landers to support the agency’s later phases of the Artemis program after the initial Artemis 3 landing.
The studies will enable companies to mature their designs for crewed lunar landers and provide feedback to NASA on proposed standards and specifications, such as a series of trade studies on aspects of the lander architecture. The studies would also support specific risk reduction activities proposed by companies for their landers.
“This announcement is a chance for the pioneering private sector to claim their stake in the emerging lunar economy and make history with NASA,” Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA HLS program manager, said in an agency statement about the new solicitation.
At an industry day May 3, Watson-Morgan said NASA anticipated making “a few” awards at about $15 million each. The request for proposals will support proposals worth up to $45 million, or up to $100 million if options for additional work are exercised. NASA did not disclose how much total funding is available.
Proposals are due to NASA Aug. 2 with awards expected in the fall. That deadline has raised concerns in industry because it comes just two days before the deadline for the Government Accountability Office to rule on protests filed by Blue Origin and Dynetics regarding NASA’s selection of SpaceX for the single HLS award. While the GAO could rule on the protests at any time before Aug. 4, the complexity of the two protests has led both industry observers and NASA officials, including Administrator Bill Nelson, to expect a ruling on Aug. 4.
One industry source, speaking on background, noted that NASA issued the NextSTEP Appendix N request for proposals without first issuing a draft version for comment. It gives the appearance, that person said, of NASA trying to rush this through before the GAO rules on the protests or before Congress weighs in on the program.
“They’re trying to make it a fait accompli,” the source said of NASA’s efforts to get ahead of both Congress and the GAO on its lunar landing services program. “I’ve never seen an agency do this kind of thing before.”
An outside expert agrees that the way the competition is structured puts Blue Origin and Dynetics in a bind. “The timing may compel the protesters to basically ‘conceding’ to participate in the NASA-defined process leading to LETS,” said Greg Autry, professor at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management and a former White House liaison at NASA during the Trump administration. Those companies “will surely feel pressure to respond simply to stay in the game.”
However, Autry said he was relieved that NASA is moving ahead with the LETS effort. The agency’s decision to select only one company, with just one guaranteed landing, “left me worried that the agency was contemplating a ‘touch and go’ on the moon” with no sustained presence before shifting focus to human Mars missions.
“In particular, it is good to see the words ‘sustaining’ and ‘sustainable’ all throughout this document,” he said of the solicitation. “I think that tacitly acknowledges a post-Artemis 3 presence. The structure of this also addresses my criticisms of the single vendor award in that any long-term lunar surface activity that depends on a single system is unsafe and a noncompetitive market will be unaffordable, in the long run.”
WASHINGTON — NASA has selected SpaceX as the sole company to win a contract to develop and demonstrate a crewed lunar lander, while keeping the door open for others to compete for future missions.
NASA announced April 16 that it awarded a contract to SpaceX for Option A of the Human Landing System (HLS) program, which covers development of a crewed lunar lander and a demonstration mission. The fixed-price, milestone-based contract has a total value of $2.89 billion.
SpaceX was one of three companies that received initial HLS contracts nearly one year ago for early design work on their lander concepts. SpaceX offered a version of its Starship vehicle, launched on its Super Heavy booster and refueled in low Earth orbit before going to the moon.
However, in a hastily arranged call with reporters to announce the selection of only SpaceX, officials acknowledged that limited budgets forced them to select only SpaceX. The agency received $850 million for the HLS program in fiscal year 2021, about one-fourth its original request.
“We weighed a lot of things, including what we’re getting from the demonstration mission, what we want for our potential future procurement for our sustainable landers, and it was in NASA’s best interest, along with the budget that was there, for us to award to one,” Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said.
In a source selection statement, NASA said that SpaceX’s price was lower than the other two teams, led by Blue Origin and Dynetics, “by a wide margin.” SpaceX received a technical rating of “Acceptable” and management rating of “Outstanding,” compared to a technical rating of “Acceptable” and management rating of “Very Good” for Blue Origin and “Marginal” and “Very Good” ratings for Dynetics. Blue Origin’s price was “significantly higher” than SpaceX and Dynetics was “significantly higher” than Blue Origin.
Lueders, the source selection authority for HLS, concluded that while Blue Origin’s proposal “has merit,” she did not select it for a second Option A award “because I find that its proposal does not present sufficient value to the Government” and because of the limited funding after selecting SpaceX for one award. “I do not have enough funding available to even attempt to negotiate a price from Blue Origin that could potentially enable a contract award.”
Dynetics fared even worse, with Lueders concluding that its proposal “is overall of limited merit and is only somewhat in alignment with the objectives as set forth in this solicitation.”
That Option A award will support development of the Starship lunar lander, and include at least one uncrewed test flight to land on the lunar surface before NASA proceeds with a crewed mission. “We want to make sure that everything is checked out and everything is ready” before putting NASA astronauts on the spacecraft, said Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA HLS program manager.
However, after that crewed demonstration mission NASA will procure landing services through a separate contract. Agency officials said they will accelerate planning for that contract, where NASA will procure landing services for multiple missions. “As early as next week, we’ll be engaging industry for their input on how to best fashion and enable competition for this very important acquisition,” said Kirasich at the media briefing.
That future contract will be a full and open competition, allowing the other HLS competitors and perhaps other companies to compete with SpaceX. Any competitor, though, would be at a disadvantage as they will lack SpaceX’s Option A contract to fund lander development.
Another open question is the schedule for SpaceX’s Option A mission. Steve Jurczyk, NASA acting administrator, said the request for proposals put in a 2024 goal for that mission. However, he noted the agency is currently performing a “comprehensive review” the overall Artemis program, including schedules and budgets. He said earlier in the briefing that NASA’s goal was to return humans to the lunar surface “as quickly and safely as possible.”
“These human-rated system developments are very complex, and there is risk. The NASA team will have the insight into the progress that SpaceX is making,” he said. “If they’re hitting their milestones, we may have a shot at 2024.”
“We always fly when it’s safe,” Lueders added.
SpaceX, which did not participate in the NASA briefing, issued only a tweet acknowledging winning HLS. “We are humbled to help @NASAArtemis usher in a new era of human space exploration,” the company wrote.
Blue Origin, in a statement to SpaceNews, had little to say about the NASA selection of rival SpaceX over its “National Team” that included Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. “The National Team doesn’t have very much information yet. We are looking to learn more about the selection.” Dynetics did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
One member of Congress, though, was critical of NASA’s decision. “I am disappointed that the acting NASA leadership decided to make such a consequential award prior to the arrival of a new permanent NASA administrator and deputy administrator,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Science Committee.
Johnson had been critical of NASA’s approach of using industry partnerships to develop human landers and procure landing services, rather than a more conventional contracting approach, where NASA would own the vehicles and intellectual property.
“The decision to make the award today also comes despite the obvious need for a re-baselining of NASA’s lunar exploration program, which has no realistic chance of returning U.S. astronauts to the Moon by 2024,” she added, calling for the agency’s new leadership to “carry out its own review of all elements of NASA’s Moon-Mars initiative to ensure that this major national undertaking is put on a sound footing.”
Since the announcement, neither NASA nor SpaceX have provided many updates on the contract or the development of the Dragon XL spacecraft that the company plans to use to carry out the cargo missions to the Gateway. Each Dragon XL, launching on a Falcon Heavy, is designed to transport at least five metric tons of pressurized and unpressurized cargo on the Gateway and also dispose of trash at the end of its mission.
One NASA official acknowledged at a recent meeting that, a year after awarding the contract, work on the contract has yet to begin. “We’ve selected SpaceX, and we’re still working on when we’re going to start that contract and all the different details, when we’re even going to be able to work with them on those types of things,” said Dina Contella, manager for mission integration and utilization in the Gateway program, during an April 9 meeting of a National Academies committee supporting the ongoing planetary science decadal survey.
She was responding to a question about the potential use of the Dragon XL cargo vehicle for hosting scientific payloads during or after its mission to the Gateway. SpaceX is interested in supporting such research, she said, but there’s been little discussion so far between NASA and SpaceX on how to do so. “We have yet to really kick off our discussions on that post-departure science with them, based on our contract status.”
NASA, in a statement provided to SpaceNews April 14, said it has yet to formally authorize SpaceX to proceed on the Gateway Logistics Services contract because the agency is studying the overall schedule of the Artemis lunar exploration program, of which development and use of the Gateway is just one part.
“An agency internal Artemis review team is currently assessing the timing of various Artemis capabilities, including Gateway. The goal of this internal review is to evaluate the current Artemis program budget and timeline, and develop high-level plans that include content, schedule, and budgets for the program,” the agency stated.
“The timing for the Gateway Logistics Services program’s authorization to proceed will be determined following conclusion of the review,” NASA added, but provided no schedule for completing the review.
A NASA procurement database shows that the agency has obligated a little more than $14 million on its Gateway Logistics Services contract with SpaceX. Most of that — $12.7 million — came from a pair of contract modifications in September 2020 to cover work on enhanced communications and “heavy ion environment testing” for operations in cislunar space. Those two contract modifications are the most recent actions on the contract.
Another contact modification earlier in September 2020, valued at about $680,000, was described in the database as “Requirement Change Evaluation for Gateway Logistics Services Risk Mitigation Due to delayed Authority to Proceed.”
It’s not clear when missions to the Gateway that require cargo delivered by SpaceX will begin. NASA now expects to launch the first two Gateway modules, the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO), on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy in 2024 under a contract awarded Feb. 9. Additional elements from international partners, including Canada, Europe and Japan, will follow.
The soonest astronauts would visit the Gateway would be the Artemis 3 mission, launching no earlier than 2024. However, Contella noted in her presentation that NASA was still studying the option of having the Orion spacecraft for Artemis 3 dock directly with the lunar lander, rather than have both Orion and the lander dock with the Gateway as planned for later Artemis missions.
Once crews start visiting the Gateway, Contella said she expected the need for one cargo resupply mission per crewed mission, which will carry supplies and equipment for the astronauts staying on the Gateway and potentially additional science payloads. “It will be able to provide quite a number of payloads. The main issue is just the amount of upmass required in general for the crewed missions,” she said. “There’s a lot of logistics required just for the mission itself.”
NASA is interested in using the lunar Gateway for science, with experiments both mounted on its exterior and inside the modules. That includes, Contella said, the possibility of using the Dragon XL spacecraft for experiments once it departs the Gateway at the end of its resupply mission. The spacecraft will not return to Earth but instead be disposed in a heliocentric orbit.
“We’re investigating the potential use of our Gateway logistics modules, the SpaceX vehicle, in providing payload support services after the logistics module has departed Gateway,” she said. “If it’s going to heliocentric space, then you can continue to study your science after it has departed.”
“That will cost money for operations,” she added, “but it might enable some significant science. We’ll have to work with our SpaceX vendor on that.”
We continue to make progress toward the first launch of our Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for the Artemis I mission around the Moon. Engineers at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi are preparing for the last two tests of the eight-part SLS core stage Green Run test series.
The test campaign is one of the final milestones before our SLS rocket launches America’s Orion spacecraft to the Moon with the Artemis program. The SLS Green Run test campaign is a series of eight different tests designed to bring the
entire rocket stage to life for the first time.
As our engineers and technicians prepare for the wet dress rehearsal and the SLS Green Run hot fire, here are some numbers to keep in mind:
The SLS rocket’s core stage is the largest rocket stage we have ever produced. From top to bottom of its four RS-25 engines, the rocket stage measures 212 feet.
For each of the Green Run tests, the SLS core stage is installed in the historic B-2 Test Stand at Stennis. The test stand was updated to accommodate the SLS rocket stage and is 35 stories tall – or almost 350 feet!
4 RS-25 Engines
All four RS-25 engines will operate simultaneously during the final Green Run Hot Fire. Fueled by the two propellant tanks, the cluster of engines will gimbal, or pivot, and fire for up to eight minutes just as if it were an actual Artemis launch to the Moon.
Our brawny SLS core stage is outfitted with three flight computers and special avionics systems that act as the “brains” of the rocket. It has 18 miles of cabling and more than 500 sensors and systems to help feed fuel and direct the four RS-25 engines.
The stage has two huge propellant tanks that collectively hold 733,000 gallons of super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The stage weighs more than 2.3 million pounds when its fully fueled.
114 Tanker Trucks
It’ll take 114 trucks – 54 trucks carrying liquid hydrogen and 60 trucks carrying liquid oxygen – to provide fuel to the SLS core stage.
6 Propellant Barges
A series of barges will deliver the propellant from the trucks to the rocket stage installed in the test stand. Altogether, six propellant barges will send fuel through a special feed system and lines. The propellant initially will be used to chill the feed system and lines to the correct cryogenic temperature. The propellant then will flow from the barges to the B-2 Test Stand and on into the stage’s tanks.
All eight of the Green Run tests and check outs will produce more than 100 terabytes of collected data that engineers will use to certify the core stage design and help verify the stage is ready for launch.
For comparison, just one terabyte is the equivalent to 500 hours of movies, 200,000 five-minute songs, or 310,000 pictures!
The B-2 Test Stand has a flame deflector that will direct the fire
produced from the rocket’s engines away from the stage. Nearly 33,000 tiny, handmade holes dot the
flame deflector. Why? All those minuscule holes
play a huge role by directing constant streams of pressurized water to cool the
hot engine exhaust.
One Epic First
When NASA conducts the SLS Green Run Hot Fire test at
Stennis, it’ll be the first time that the SLS core stage operates just as it
would on the launch pad. This test is just a preview of what’s to come for
The Space Launch System is the only rocket that can send
NASA astronauts aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft and supplies to the Moon in a
single mission. The SLS core stage is a key part of the rocket that will send
the first woman and the next man to the Moon through NASA’s Artemis program.
WASHINGTON — NASA has awarded more than $400 million in contracts to both demonstrate technologies needed for future lunar exploration and to send an ice-drilling payload to the south pole of the moon.
NASA announced Oct. 16 that it awarded a task order worth $47 million to Intuitive Machines, one of 14 companies in the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, to deliver the Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment 1 (PRIME-1) payload to the south pole of the moon by the end of 2022.
PRIME-1 is a 40-kilogram payload designed to look for water ice at depths of up to one meter below the lunar surface. It will test a near-infrared spectrometer, mass spectrometer and drill that NASA plans to fly on the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission in 2023.
“We’re building up our capabilities for in-situ resource utilization, utilizing the resources on the moon,” Jim Reuter, NASA associate administrator for space technology, said at an Oct. 14 meeting of the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium, a group that brings together academia, government and industry to assess technologies needed for exploration of the lunar surface. PRIME-1, he said, was one of the first experiments to support that effort.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, speaking earlier at the same meeting, also discussed the importance of both PRIME-1 and VIPER. “These missions are critically important to help us understand where we need to go so we can get the best assessment of those volatiles,” he said, which can help the agency identify promising landing site for future crewed Artemis missions.
The announcement of the PRIME-1 launch came two days after NASA awarded a much larger amount of money for lunar surface technologies. The 15 awards to 14 companies, made through the agency’s Tipping Point program, are intended to advance technologies nearing maturity that could support the later, “sustainable,” phase of the Artemis program.
“NASA believes that these kinds of companies, and capabilities they’ve developed, are going to be transformational for how we explore space,” Bridenstine said at the consortium meeting, where he announced the Tipping Point awards. “But we also believe it’s going to take a little bit of a push from NASA.”
Of the $372.2 million in Tipping Point contracts, $256.1 million will go to four companies working on cryogenic fluid management technology demonstrations: Eta Space, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. All four companies plan to conduct in-space demonstrations of technologies for storage and transfer of propellants like liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.
“When we fly into space, we have to story cryogenic fluids for long periods of time,” Bridenstine said. “How can we manage cryogenic fluids so we can do spaceflight in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to?”
Eta Space will use its $27 million award to fly a small satellite called LOXSAT 1 to test liquid oxygen storage technologies. Eta Space is working with Rocket Lab, which will provide the Photon satellite bus LOXSAT 1 is based on and launch the spacecraft on its Electron rocket.
Lockheed Martin won an $89.7 million award to test liquid hydrogen storage technologies on a small satellite. The company is working with Momentus, which will host the payload on a Vigoride orbital transfer vehicle, and Relativity Space, which will launch the vehicle on its Terran 1 rocket in October 2023.
SpaceX, which has already been working with NASA on studying cryogenic fluid management technologies, won $53.2 million to demonstrate the transfer of 10 tons of liquid oxygen between tanks on a Starship vehicle in orbit. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, asked about orbital refueling at a Mars Society conference Oct. 16, said “we’ve got a shot of doing that in ’22.”
United Launch Alliance will use its $86.2 million award to demonstrate a “smart propulsion cryogenic system” using the Centaur upper stage of its new Vulcan rocket. That demonstration includes testing tank-to-tank transfer of propellants and “multi-week” storage.
The remaining Tipping Point funding went to 10 companies to demonstrate a range of technologies needed for landing and operating on the lunar surface. Masten Space Systems won two contracts, with a total value of $12.8 million, to demonstrate precision landing technologies with its Xogdor vehicle and a system to provide heat and power for payloads to allow them to survive the lunar night.
Other awards, ranging in value from $2.4 million to $41.6 million, cover technologies such as power systems, a payload to extract oxygen from lunar regolith, and a robotic arm. Nokia won a $14.1 million award to develop lunar communications systems using 4G wireless networks.
Intuitive Machines won the largest of those awards for development of a “hopper” that can carry a one-kilogram payload up to 2.5 kilometers across the lunar surface. “That’s going to give us high-resolution mapping of maybe volatiles on the surface of the moon,” Bridenstine said. “It’s going to help us understand how to pinpoint very precise landing spots on the surface of the moon.”
NASA’s upcoming Artemis mission to the Moon hit an important milestone today by successfully ground testing a full-scale version of its newest rocket booster.
Building on the completion of other similar tests of the booster – named Flight Support Booster 1 (FSB-1) – which qualified it for flight as part of the agency’s upcoming Space Launch System (SLS), this most recent test used new propellant materials and verified that the ballistic requirements of its five motors were met. In a follow up teleconference, NASA and its partners confirmed the test accomplished its goals.
“NASA and Northrop Grumman have completed testing for the boosters used for the first three Artemis missions of the agency’s lunar program,” the digital press kit detailed. “FSB-1 builds upon prior tests of the rocket’s five-segment solid rocket booster to evaluate improvements and new materials in the boosters for missions beyond Artemis III.”
FSB-1 and its variants are primarily built by NASA partner Northrop Grumman whose facility in Promontory, Utah is where today’s test took place. The recent test firing burned for about two minutes and produced 3.6 million pounds of thrust. Its success is a nod to NASA’s claim that these are the largest, most powerful rocket boosters ever built for flight. Measuring 167 feet long and 12 feet in diameter, FSB-1-type boosters will fly in pairs along with the main SLS rocket body and cargo.
NASA’s Artemis mission is dubbed as the “twin sister of Apollo” and is aiming to return humans to the Moon by 2024. The agency has set out to develop a whole suite of technologies to support both a sustainable lunar-oriented mission and a subsequent Mars mission, engaging the commercial space community along the way. While the launch components of Artemis involve the traditional NASA path of using long-time contractors, other parts of the mission have been opened to other bidders whose contract winners have included SpaceX.
NASA’s SLS rocket seen in its Block 1 configuration with on Orion capsule on top. (NASA)
One of the SLS’s primary competitors will be SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Starship rockets. The company has already begun testing prototypes of its rocket-lander combination along with setting world records with its new Raptor engine. While SpaceX’s primary mission is to ferry humans to Mars for lifelong stays, the Moon is already providing paying customers for the venture.
Last year, CEO Elon Musk announced a private charter agreement between eccentric Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and the rocket maker for a lunar trip in 2023. SpaceX’s earliest NASA-backed trip to the Moon is set for 2022 while the agency’s own Artemis mission has 2024 on its calendar for launch.
You can watch NASA’s full Artemis mission booster test below:
In about four and a half years, NASA envisions a lunar lander touching down near the south pole of the moon. Two astronauts will exit the lander’s crew module and go down a few steps to be the first humans on the lunar surface since 1972. Or, they’ll make their way down a much longer ladder to the surface. Or maybe just take an elevator.
NASA looked to tap into the creativity of the private sector with its Human Landing System (HLS) program to develop the landers needed for the Artemis program. Rather than use a conventional contracting approach and pick a single company to develop a lander under a cost-plus contract, it offered multiple fixed-price awards to companies that would develop landers though public-private partnerships, with NASA eventually being one of potentially several customers for them.
“This is the last piece that we need to get to the moon, and now we’re going to have that under development,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during an April 30 teleconference where he announced the winning companies. “Today, we’re going under contract with three companies that are going to take us all the way to the moon.”
Despite his confidence, though, there remain many questions about whether any of those companies will be able to have a lander ready in time to meet the Trump administration’s goal of a 2024 landing, or if NASA will have the budget to afford them.
THREE DIFFERENT LANDERS
When NASA released the final version of its HLS call for proposals last September, the agency outlined a two-phase approach for developing lunar landers. NASA would first pick as many as four proposals for an initial round of studies, advancing designs to the equivalent of a preliminary design review over about 10 months. NASA would then select one or two companies for full-scale lander development, with one being ready to support a 2024 landing, while the other would take a slower development track for a mission in 2025 or later.
NASA selected three of the five proposals it received for those initial studies. The largest single award, $579 million, was also perhaps the least surprising. Blue Origin announced its intent to compete for the HLS program in October, with company founder Jeff Bezos announcing a at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington a “national team” that features Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
The lander design NASA selected for further development closely follows what Blue Origin described last fall. Blue Origin will provide the descent stage, based on its Blue Moon cargo lunar lander concept and powered by the BE-7 engine it is developing. Lockheed Martin will build the ascent module that includes the crew cabin, leveraging systems it created for the Orion spacecraft. Northrop Grumman will build a transfer module, based on its Cygnus spacecraft, that will move the lander from the Gateway and Orion’s elliptical halo orbit around the moon to low lunar orbit. Draper will develop the lander’s avionics and software.
Dynetics, which received a $253 million award, took a lower profile in more ways than one. The company didn’t acknowledge that it bid on HLS until January, after Sierra Nevada Corporation executives said in a media call it had collaborated with Dynetics on a proposal. The company said little more at the time beyond that it had assembled “a very impressive team of experienced small and mid-sized companies” for its bid. That turned out to be a group of 25 companies that included Maxar, Thales Alenia Space, L3Harris and even one of Blue Origin’s teammates, Draper.
Dynetics offered a distinctive lander concept that won praise from NASA reviewers for its “crew-centric” design. Rather than have the ascent module, with its crew cabin, stacked on top of the descent module, like Blue Origin’s design as well as the Apollo lunar lander, the Dynetics lander consists of a single module ringed by propellant tanks, using the same engines both for landing and takeoff. That allows the module to be low to the ground, requiring just a few steps to get from the lander to the surface.
The third winner, SpaceX, never announced that it was bidding on the HLS program, although most in the industry were not surprised they competed. As many surmised, SpaceX offered a version of its Starship vehicle as a human lunar lander that NASA selected for a $135 million award. SpaceX had already offered Starship to NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program for landing robotic payloads, although the company has yet to win a CLPS task order for a lander mission.
SpaceX’s approach would involve several different Starships, including one that would be a propellant depot in low Earth orbit, fueled by tanker Starships. The lunar lander Starship would launch to Earth orbit and fill its tanks at the depot before departing for the moon. The Starship lunar lander is far larger than the alternative concepts, and its crew cabin is so high that astronauts will need to use an elevator to get to the surface.
Notably absent from the winners was Boeing, which announced in November it proposed a lander that could launch as a single, integrated vehicle on a Space Launch System rocket. It argued that its “Fewest Steps to the Moon” concept minimized complexity over concepts that required aggregating two or three lander elements, launched individually, at the lunar Gateway.
NASA’s source selection statement for the HLS program did not explain why Boeing failed to win an award, only that it was removed “from further consideration for award earlier in the source selection process.” (That document also disclosed NASA received a bid from a fifth company, Vivace, best known as a manufacturer of tanks and structures; it, too, was excluded from consideration without explanation.)
“Boeing does not discuss its technical proposals or evaluations,” Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling said.
INNOVATION VS. SPEED
NASA went to great lengths to emphasize the innovation the three companies, with their very different concepts, offered to the agency. “One thing that we were striving for,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA HLS program manager, “is to see what U.S. industry could bring us with respect to innovation. And boy, did they deliver.”
“In summary, all three offerors proposed audacious and innovative HLS designs and capabilities, each with unique technical merit,” NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk wrote in the source selection statement. “Many of the technologies upon which these capabilities rely have yet to be developed, tested, or demonstrated; the challenge that lies ahead is formidable.”
Those comments, though, highlight the tension in the HLS program between that desire for innovation versus the schedule challenge of getting humans back to the moon by 2024. Development of new technologies is subject to delays and setbacks, not the mention the risk of just not working at all.
That schedule risk emerged as a major issue in the evaluation of the proposals. NASA cited as weaknesses in SpaceX’s bid the complicated architecture involving many Starships and a “notably complex” propulsion that has little schedule margin to accommodate delays. “These development and operational risks, in the aggregate, threaten the schedule viability of a successful 2024 demonstration mission,” NASA noted in the source selection statement.
The reviewers also warned about SpaceX’s past performance, such as multiyear delays in development of Crew Dragon and Falcon Heavy, that reduced their confidence “in SpaceX’s ability to successfully execute on its proposed HLS development schedule.”
NASA raised similar issues about the other two winners. Blue Origin’s power and propulsion system is technically immature, the statement concluded, and requires “a very significant amount of development work that must proceed precisely according to Blue Origin’s plan, including occurring on what appears to be an aggressive timeline.”
The same system on Dynetics’ lander “introduces appreciable risk of unsuccessful contract performance from both a technical and development schedule standpoint,” the statement argues, in part because it relied on unproven technologies that “would need to be developed at an unprecedented pace.”
NASA was asked at the announcement how it could make that 2024 deadline since it has less time than in the 1960s with the Apollo lunar lander, which took about six and a half years from contract award to the Apollo 11 mission.
“We have technologies that exist today that had to be invented back in the ’60s. We don’t have to invent technologies today to make this work,” said Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, contradicting the assessment NASA made in its review of the proposals.
He said a bigger factor was getting the requirements right. A change in requirements created a two-year delay between the preliminary and critical design reviews of the Apollo lander, he argued. Getting those requirements right will be a primary focus of the first few months of each HLS contract. “An extra month that we take in the very beginning to make sure that we have the requirements right will save us a year on the back end.”
AN EXTRA PUZZLE PIECE?
Loverro, like Bridenstine, saw the HLS awards as finalizing its plans for returning humans to the moon. “We are now on our way,” he said. “There are no hurdles left. There are no more puzzle pieces to add.” The Artemis program, he said, had everything it needed to land humans on the moon. For the 2024 landing, though, NASA may instead have an extra piece. Its original plans called for using the lunar Gateway as a base camp for those lunar landing missions, a facility where both the lunar lander and Orion would dock.
In March, though, Loverro told a NASA advisory committee that he was taking the Gateway off the critical path for a 2024 landing but preserving its development for later missions. Bridenstine confirmed that plan at the HLS announcement. “The Gateway is not required for that 2024 mission, and, in fact, I would go as far to say that it’s not likely that we will use the Gateway for the 2024 mission,” he said.
Gateway remains important for NASA’s long-term plans for sustainable lunar exploration, he emphasized. But, he added, “anything that is not necessary we need to move out of the way so that we can get to the surface of the moon” by 2024.
Loverro said that Gateway may yet serve a supporting role for the 2024 mission. “It’s still going to serve as a communications hub,” he said. “It’s going to be our high-bandwidth communication back from the surface of the moon for 2024.”
A GIANT FUNDING LEAP
The three HLS awards have a combined value of $967 million. However, the contracts are only a down payment for building one or more landers, which is likely to cost NASA several billion dollars plus whatever contributions the companies in the program make as part of the partnership.
NASA, anticipating that cost, requested a nearly 12% budget increase in its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal in February. However, the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including more than $2 trillion in supplemental spending bills, has created doubts that Congress will be willing to support that increase.
Bridenstine was optimistic. “I don’t see our budget being cut because of this,” he said at the HLS announcement, discussing how he talked in the days leading up to the awards with members of the House and Senate of both parties.
“They have all been very supportive of the effort to get to the moon,” he said, “and I have not heard anybody suggest that, because of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re going to have to cut NASA.”
But not everyone in Congress backs NASA’s lunar lander plans. In a statement the day after the announcement, Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), chairs of the House Science Committee and its space subcommittee, respectively, criticized NASA’s approach to the Artemis program in general and lunar landers in particular. They introduced, with their Republican counterparts, a NASA authorization bill in January that called for a more traditional development approach for the lander.
“The multiyear delays and difficulties experienced by the companies of NASA’s taxpayer-funded commercial crew program — a program with the far less ambitious goal of just getting NASA astronauts back to low Earth orbit — make clear to me that we should not be trying to privatize America’s Moon-Mars program,” Johnson said.
Bridenstine was undeterred. “I don’t think we’re in any danger,” he said during a May 5 webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, making the case for including NASA in any infrastructure stimulus bill Congress may consider later this year. “There’s strong bipartisan support for the Artemis program.”
But the giant leap in funding needed for Artemis may yet turn out to be a bigger obstacle than the technology needed for lunar landers that will allow astronauts to make the next small steps on the moon in 2024.
This article originally appeared in the May 11, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
NASA has signed a $187 million contract with Northrop Grumman to complete the preliminary design of a pressurized crew habitat for the planned Gateway mini-space station near the moon, and agency officials have discussed new details about plans to launch first two Gateway modules on a single heavy-lift rocket.
The contract with Northrop Grumman announced June 5 covers Northrop Grumman’s work to design the Gateway’s habitation and logistics outpost, or HALO, module. The pressurized cabin will offer expanded living quarters for astronauts arriving at the Gateway on NASA’s Orion crew capsule.
“This contract award is another significant milestone in our plan to build robust and sustainable lunar operations,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement. “The Gateway is a key component of NASA’s long-term Artemis architecture and the HALO capability furthers our plans for human exploration at the Moon in preparation for future human missions to Mars.”
The $187 contract announced June 5 will carry Northrop Grumman’s work on the HALO element through a preliminary design review scheduled for the end of 2020. NASA announced last year that it would award a sole-source contract with Northrop Grumman for the HALO, but a firm agreement was not announced until this month.
NASA said it will sign a separate contract with Northrop Grumman for the fabrication and assembly of the HALO for integration with the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element, a solar-powered spacecraft with electric thrusters being built by Maxar Technologies.
The Gateway is part of NASA’s Artemis moon program, which aims to send astronauts to the lunar surface before the end of 2024, a deadline set by the Trump administration. But NASA says the Gateway is unlikely to be part of the program’s first crewed lunar landing mission, which is expected to involve a direct link-up between an Orion crew capsule and a human-rated lunar lander around the moon, without going through the Gateway.
The HALO will be derived from Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus supply ship that flies cargo to the International Space Station. With a pressure shell made in Italy by Thales Alenia Space, the Gateway’s first habitat module will be outfitted with additional docking ports and command and control capabilities, including upgraded environmental control and life support systems, according to Northrop Grumman.
The combined function of the HALO and Orion life support systems will sustain up to four astronauts for up to 30 days on the Gateway, officials said.
“By leveraging the active Cygnus production line, Northrop Grumman has the unique capability of providing an affordable and reliable HALO module in the timeframe needed to support NASA’s Artemis program,” Northrop Grumman said.
“The success of our Cygnus spacecraft and its active production line helps to enable Northrop Grumman to deliver the HALO module,” said Steve Krein, vice president for civil and commercial satellites at Northrop Grumman. “HALO is an essential element in NASA’s long-term exploration of deep-space, and our HALO program team will continue its work in building and delivering this module in partnership with NASA.”
The docking ports on the HALO module will accommodate Orion crew capsules, lunar landers and cargo ships.
The Gateway’s unpressurized Power and Propulsion Element will serve as the service module for the mini-space station, providing electrical power generated by huge roll-out solar arrays and propulsion capability from high-power solar-electric thrusters made by Aerojet Rocketdyne.
NASA has signed a contract with SpaceX to provide logistics services to the Gateway using an extended version of the Dragon spacecraft launched aboard Falcon Heavy rockets. The Dragon XL will carry up experiments, food, supplies, spacesuits and other equipment to support astronauts on the Gateway.
In April, NASA announced agreements with Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX to advance the design of crew-rated lunar lander concepts for the Artemis program.
NASA discusses new details about tandem launch of first two Gateway elements
Ken Bowersox, the acting head of NASA’s human spaceflight division, said Tuesday that the agency’s plan to launch the PPE and HALO elements on the same heavy-lift rocket will require the Gateway’s solar-powered thrusters to do more of the work to position the lunar outpost into its planned orbit around the moon.
NASA has not selected a rocket to carry the two modules into space, but the massive payload could fit on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket with a lengthened payload fairing currently in development to accommodate large U.S. military satellites, officials said. A final selection of a launch vehicle for the Gateway modules is expected before the end of this year.
Agency managers previously intended to launch the PPE module and the HALO on separate rockets in 2022 and 2023. Now the combined elements are scheduled for launch in November 2023, according to Dan Hartman, NASA’s Gateway program manager.
The tandem launch will allow engineers to connect the modules together on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center, rather than having to perform an automated docking in the vicinity of the moon. The connections involve structural, mechanical, power and fluids interfaces.
Northrop Grumman will handle the connections between the HALO and the Maxar-built Power and Propulsion Element.
That will save money and reduce risk, according to NASA.
Rather than launching directly on a trajectory toward the moon, the first two Gateway modules will deploy off their launch vehicle in a high-altitude orbit around Earth, then head to an elliptical halo orbit around the moon.
“When we decided to integrate the PPE and the HALO, we realized that we weren’t going to be able to get the elements all the way out to the moon with the launch vehicle,” Bowersox said Tuesday. “What would work better was to get them into a high orbit and then use the solar-electric propulsion to get out to cislunar space, so that’s our plan now.”
NASA says the Gateway will have several missions, including demonstrating technologies for future deep space missions, such as human expeditions to Mars. Many engineers consider high-power solar-electric propulsion, which uses electricity and an inert gas to produce thrust, as an essential technology for long-duration flights to Mars.
“The great part about that plan is we’re going to get lots of run time on those solar-electric engines, and we’re going to get the run time very early in the vehicle’s life,” Bowersox said. “So Gateway will already have served a big part of its purpose within its first year of life, and then we’ll be able to add additional (xenon) fuel to the gateway, get more information on how long those engines last in addition to supporting the work on the lunar surface.”
The Gateway will also act as a safe haven for astronauts heading to the lunar surface, and it will offer a staging point for lunar landers, allowing the vehicles to eventually be refueled and reused for multiple trips to and from the moon.
But NASA has deferred some work on the Gateway in favor of accelerating development of crewed lunar landing vehicles. While the Gateway could provide communications relay support for the Artemis program’s first lunar landing mission with astronauts, crews are not expected to visit the Gateway until at least 2025.
NASA has often emphasized the Gateway’s ability to host scientific payloads for solar and astronomical research, alongside biological and radiation experiments, and lunar research instruments. But much of those capabilities will come later, once international elements are added to the Gateway.
Canada is developing a new robotic arm for the Gateway station, and Japanese and European space agencies are working on larger habitation module and a refueling and communications package for the outpost in lunar orbit.
“We want to use Gateway for as much science as we can, but as we descope Gateway, we’re going to have just less surface area on the outside, less surface area on the inside, so we’re not going to have as much room for different science investigations,” Bowersox said Tuesday. “But we want to get as much out of it as we can.”
WASHINGTON — A NASA evaluation suggests that the agency selected SpaceX for one of the three human lunar lander awards as a high-risk, high-reward option that could provide significant capability but may not be ready in time for a 2024 landing.
According to a NASA source selection statement for the Human Landing Services (HLS) program, dated April 28, SpaceX had the weakest adjectival rating of the three companies selected, with technical and managerial ratings of “Acceptable.” Blue Origin received a technical rating of Acceptable and a managerial rating of “Very Good,” while Dynetics received technical and managerial ratings of Very Good.
SpaceX received several strengths based on the proposed capabilities of the Starship vehicle it bid, a spacecraft much larger than the other winning proposals. The system “meets or exceeds all of NASA’s threshold values” for functional and performance requirements, the document states.
The design also supports NASA’s long-term lunar exploration plans, where the agency has emphasized sustainability and longer stays on the lunar surface. “By immediately incorporating these capabilities into its proposed design, SpaceX’s proposal provides substantial mission design flexibility and dramatically reduces the time and cost associated with transitioning into sustainable phase mission operations,” the document states.
That approach, though, carries with it risks. NASA cited as a strength a development plan that “prioritizes early and numerous ground and flight system demonstrations to reduce schedule and technical risk.” That test program ranges from a flight of Starship in low Earth orbit to an uncrewed lunar landing in 2022.
However, NASA noted lengthy delays in other SpaceX programs, such as commercial crew and development of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which were years behind original schedules. “These delays decreased the [Source Evaluation Panel’s] confidence in SpaceX’s ability to successfully execute on its proposed HLS development schedule,” the document stated.
Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator and the source selection authority for the program, downplayed that weakness. “I find that SpaceX’s extensive relevant experience, combined with the lessons learned from these efforts, somewhat mitigate the risk associated with the potential for schedule delays,” he wrote.
Evaluators also considered as a weakness SpaceX’s concept of operations, which involves using other Starship vehicles as tankers and a propellant depot to fuel the Starship that will serve as the lander. That approach “requires numerous, highly complex launch, rendezvous, and fueling operations which all must succeed in quick succession in order to successfully execute on its approach,” which evaluators argued posed a risk to a 2024 landing.
A third weakness in the SpaceX proposal involved development of its propulsion system, which is “notably complex and comprised of likewise complex individual subsystems that have yet to be developed, tested and certified with very little schedule margin to accommodate delays.” SpaceX’s development plan, evaluators concluded, “does not adequately address the risk of potential delay in development, as well as concomitant delay to SpaceX’s demonstration mission.”
NASA also cited weaknesses in the propulsion systems of the other two awardees. NASA said that Blue Origin’s power and propulsion system is relatively complex and immature, posing development risks. “Technically, the design appears to be sound, but this design can only come to fruition as a result of a very significant amount of development work that must proceed precisely according to Blue Origin’s plan, including occurring on what appears to be an aggressive timeline,” the document stated.
The agency had a similar criticism of the propulsion system in the Dynetics lander. “This system is complex and relies upon technologies that are at relatively low maturity levels or that have yet to be developed for Dynetics’ proposed application, but would need to be developed at an unprecedented pace,” it said.
Jurczyk, though, balanced that risk with the innovative approach that combines the ascent and descent modules into a single element, ringed by a set of fuel tanks. “Thus, while I agree that Dynetics’ power and propulsion system overall presents substantial technical and schedule risk, it is also the case that its approach is exactly the kind of innovative solution that NASA sought through the HLS solicitation,” he concluded.
Both Blue Origin and Dynetics, which had no significant weaknesses beyond their propulsion systems, won praise for their partnership approaches. Blue Origin’s “national team,” which features Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, is “a team with a successful record of relevant past performance across numerous efforts that have direct implications for their performance of this effort, and greatly increases NASA’s confidence” in successfully developing the lander.
The Dynetics team includes about 25 companies, including Maxar, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Thales Alenia Space. NASA cites Dynetics’ small business subcontracting plan as a significant strength, saying it “appreciably exceeds the solicitation requirements in a way that will be advantageous to the Government during contract performance and beyond.”
WASHINGTON — NASA announced April 30 it has selected three companies to begin work on designs for human lunar landers, one of which the agency still hopes will be ready to land humans on the moon by the end of 2024.
NASA selected teams led by Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX for 10-month study contracts for the Human Landing System (HLS) program. The combined value of the awards is $967 million.
“Let’s make no mistake about it: We are now on our way,” Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in a media teleconference to announce the awards, saying it completed NASA plans under the Artemis program to return humans to the moon. “There are no more puzzle pieces to add. We’ve got all the pieces we need.”
The largest award went to the team led by Blue Origin, which received $579 million. That so-called “national team,” announced in October, includes Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Blue Origin will develop the descent module, based on its Blue Moon lander design, while Lockheed provides the ascent module, Northrop builds the transfer stage, and Draper develops avionics and related systems.
A team led by Dynetics with more than 25 subcontractors received $253 million. Dynetics announced in January it had bid on the HLS program, with Sierra Nevada Corporation as one of its partners. The Dynetics design features a single module capable of both descending to the surface and ascending back to orbit.
SpaceX received the third HLS award, valued at $135 million. SpaceX is offering its Starship vehicle for lunar landings, which would be launched on its Super Heavy booster and fueled in Earth orbit by other Starship vehicles before departing for the moon. SpaceX had not announced its intent to bid on the program, declining to answer questions about it in the past, although the company was widely rumored to have submitted a bid.
The three winning bidders will begin work with NASA to refine their concepts, including defining requirements for each lander. “We’re going to spend the first three months understanding the awardees’ designs,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s HLS program manager. “This is far more than just studies. It’s going to encompass deep design, development, long-lead procurements for each of the awardees.”
That work will lead to a level of maturity for each design equivalent to a preliminary design review. NASA plans to conduct a “continuation review” by the end of the 10-month studies, she said, “so we know, quickly, who we think has the best shot of making 2024.”
The lander most likely to be ready for a 2024 landing will go forward, but NASA suggested one or both of the other companies could be retained to develop landers better suited for later missions where NASA has emphasized sustainability.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the lander selected for the 2024 mission likely will not make use of the lunar Gateway. “We believe that getting to the moon by 2024 does not require the Gateway,” he said when asked about previous comments by agency officials, like Loverro, that suggested the Gateway was not on the critical path. “The Gateway is not required for that 2024 mission, and, in fact, I would go as far to say that it’s not likely that we will use the Gateway for the 2024 mission.”
Bridenstine added that NASA was not formally taking the Gateway “off the table” for that initial 2024 mission, and that the Gateway is “critically important” for later phases of lunar exploration.
None of the three companies proposed using the Space Launch System for their lunar landers. Blue Origin said their lander can launch either on its own New Glenn vehicle or United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan, while Dynetics has baselined Vulcan and SpaceX its own Super Heavy booster for Starship. Bridenstine said SLS will still be used for launching the crewed Orion spacecraft to lunar orbit, where it will dock with the Gateway or directly with the selected lander.
NASA said its budget proposal released in February was sufficient to fund development of the HLS lander systems, along with the rest of the Artemis architecture needed for a 2024 landing. Bridenstine said he met with members of Congress of both parties in recent days about the upcoming HLS awards and found broad support for the effort.
“They have all been very supportive of the effort to get to the moon,” he said. “We have a budget request that reflects that budget priority and I have not heard anybody suggest that, because of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re going to have to cut NASA.”
It’s unclear, though, when and how Congress will act on that budget request, or if NASA will spend much or all of the 2021 fiscal year on a continuing resolution that would fund the agency at 2020 levels and deprive it of the additional funding needed for Artemis. Bridenstine did note that, if Congress does take up a new stimulus spending package focused on infrastructure as part of its response to the pandemic, he hopes that NASA will be a part of that bill.
Notably absent from the winners was Boeing, which announced in November it had proposed a lunar lander system that could be launched in one piece on the SLS. NASA officials on the call declined to state why Boeing was not selected, or if it had received other proposals, saying that would be included a source selection statement.
That source selection statement, posted on a procurement site April 30, confirmed Boeing submitted a proposal — along with another, previously unknown company, Vivace — but offered no explanation of why it was not selected.
“While Boeing is disappointed not to have been selected for HLS, we remain focused on delivering our elements of NASA’s Space Launch System, the rocket that will take Americans to the Moon and Mars,” Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling said in a statement to SpaceNews.