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SpaceX tops off Starship launch tower during Blue Origin crew launch briefing

On Sunday morning, SpaceX began the process of installing the last prefabricated section of Starship’s skyscraper-sized ‘launch tower’ around the same time as startup Blue Origin kicked off a preflight briefing for its first crewed suborbital launch.

Though both events are almost entirely unconnected and have no immediate impact on each other, the simultaneity almost immediately triggered comparisons between one of the most important media briefings in Blue Origin’s 21-year history and an average busy day at SpaceX’s South Texas Starship factory and launch site. Almost exclusively funded by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos since it was founded in September 2000, around two years before SpaceX, Blue Origin is on the cusp of its first crewed launch less than two weeks after Virgin Galactic completed its first fully-crewed test flight above 80 km (~50 mi).

Approximately 600 miles southeast of Blue Origin’s Van Horn, Texas launch and test facilities, in a different corner of the vast state, SpaceX was preparing for the latest in a long line of steps towards the completion of an orbital launch site for Starship – potentially the first fully reusable orbital rocket ever built.

First revealed more than three months ago in a cryptic post from owner Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin is scheduled to launch passengers on its New Shepard rocket for the first time ever, marking the end of an extraordinarily long development period. Designed to be fully reusable, New Shepard is a small single-stage rocket powered by one liquid hydrogen and oxygen-fueled BE-3 engine capable of producing approximately 500 kN (110,000 lbf) of thrust at liftoff. Designed exclusively for the purpose of ferrying a few tourists above a mostly arbitrary 100 km (~62 mi) line separating Earth’s atmosphere and “space,” New Shepard is about the same diameter as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets but is just 15m (~50 ft) tall.

The small rocket launched for the first time in April 2015 and reached an apogee of ~94 km but instability ultimately destroyed the first New Shepard booster during its first landing attempt. Blue Origin successfully launched and landed New Shepard on its next test flight in November 2015, culminating in Bezos’ infamous “Welcome to the club!” comment after SpaceX successfully recovered a Falcon 9 booster for the first time one month later.

As of July 2021, Blue Origin has completed just 15 New Shepard test flights – 14 of which were fully successful – in six years. In the same period, SpaceX successfully recovered an orbital-class Falcon 9 booster for the first time, reused a Falcon booster on a commercial satellite launch, debuted Falcon Heavy, reused several orbital Cargo Dragon capsules three times each, debuted Crew Dragon, became the first company in history to launch astronauts, completed its first operational astronaut launch for NASA, hopped three Starship prototypes, flew five Starship prototypes to 10-15 km, successfully landed four Raptor-powered Starship prototypes, rolled out Starship’s first completed booster prototype, completed more than 100 successful orbital launches, flown the same Falcon 9 booster ten times (versus New Shepard’s record of seven flights), reused orbital-class boosters 68 times, created the world’s largest satellite constellation, and far, far more.

Along those lines, on Saturday, July 17th, SpaceX teams attached a massive crane to the seventh prefabricated section of a ‘launch tower’ that could eventually support Starship and Super Heavy stacking – and maybe even catch ships and boosters. On Sunday, not long after daybreak and about an hour before Blue Origin’s New Shepard-16 preflight briefing, that tower section lifted off under the watchful eye of several unofficial cameras operated by NASASpaceflight, LabPadre, and others. By the end of Blue Origin’s briefing, most of which involved executives or senior employees reading from scripts and none of which offered a look at actual flight hardware or “astronaut” preparations, the eighth launch tower section was mostly in place, creating a structure some 135m (~440 ft) tall.

By the end of NASASpaceflight.com’s unofficial six-hour stream, the outlet’s excellent and unaffiliated coverage of SpaceX erecting part of a relatively simple tower for the seventh time had been viewed more than a quarter of a million times. By the end of Blue Origin’s official preflight briefing for a crewed launch set to carry the richest person on Earth, the company had accrued around 20,000 views on YouTube.

Some might see ten times as many viewers flocking to an unofficial live stream of fairly mundane SpaceX construction over a briefing for the first crewed launch of a fully-reusable suborbital rocket and scoff. For those who watched both broadcasts, it’s likely less than shocking that spaceflight and rocket fans almost universally sided with a livestream showing something – anything! – happening over what amounted to a camera pointed at five people reading (mostly stale) statements off of teleprompters.

Barely 24 hours away from Blue Origin’s most significant launch ever, the company – save for a few low-res clips from Jeff Bezos – has yet to share a single new piece of media highlighting the mission’s actual New Shepard rocket, crew capsule, astronaut preparations, flight suits, launch pad, or any of the other dozens of things most spaceflight fans – and people in general – tend to get excited about. For whatever reason, Blue Origin has also worked with Texas to shut down the only quasi-public viewing area less than 10-20 miles away from New Shepard’s launch pad despite never having done so in 15 test flights.

SpaceX, on the other hand, may not have always been a perfect neighbor in Boca Chica but the company has mostly accepted the buzzing, near-continuous presence of spaceflight fans and members of the media who come to South Texas to see Starbase in person. More recently, SpaceX has actively let at least two media outlets (NASASpaceflight and LabPadre) install and operate several robotic cameras overlooking Boca Chica’s Starship factory and pad.

It’s impossible to condense it into one or two simple differences but it’s safe to say that SpaceX’s relative openness and a general willingness to engage with media and let public excitement and interest grow uninterrupted (when possible) is part of the reason that mundane SpaceX goings-on can accumulate a magnitude more interest than on unofficial channels than an official briefing for the most important event in Blue Origin’s history.

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FAA begins use of system to reduce impact of launches on airspace

Falcon 9 Transporter-2 launch

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration has started to use a new tool intended to better integrate commercial launches and reentries into the National Airspace System, reducing the disruptions those events have on aviation.

The FAA announced July 8 that it formally started use of the Space Data Integrator (SDI) with the June 30 launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral on the Transporter-2 rideshare mission. It will be used again when the CRS-22 cargo Dragon spacecraft splashes down off the Florida cost late July 9.

SDI, under development by the FAA for several years, automates the transfer of data about launches and reentries to air traffic controllers so they have up-to-date information on the progress of those activities, including any anomalies that might create debris or other aviation hazards. That can allow controllers to more efficiently manage air traffic around those closures.

“The overall impact and the benefit is reducing the amount of time it takes to close or reopen airspace,” Tim Arel, deputy chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, said of the SDI in a call with reporters.

The intent is to allow quicker reopening of airspace once a launch or reentry has safely transited airspace. “We’re able to more dynamically adjust those closures,” he said. “What it means is that those flights moved out of the way to accommodate a safe operation of that space mission will be able to more quickly get back on to their normal flight path, or maybe even get some shortcuts.”

Arel said that other measures it had been taking for airspace closures already reduced the average length from more than four hours to more than two hours. “We know SDI will help us open the airspace even quicker,” he said, but didn’t offer an estimate of how much of an improvement it will provide.

The growing cadence of commercial launches in recent years — there have been 33 licensed launches so far in 2021, compared to 11 in all of 2016 — prompted pushback from the aviation industry given the conventional approach to closing large amounts of airspace for each launch. A breaking point was the first Falcon Heavy launch in February 2018 that closed airspace off the Florida coast for hours on a weekday afternoon, affecting hundreds of flights in a busy corridor.

The aviation and commercial spaceflight industries have been working together more closely together since then, including pushing for tools like SDI that have the potential to reduce the size and duration of airspace closures. However, the long development cycle for SDI prompted congressional criticism at a June 16 hearing of the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee.

At the hearing, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the full committee, pressed the FAA on the slow progress on SDI, stating he was opposed to delaying airline flights “because some millionaire or billionaire is going to experience 15 minutes of weightlessness.”

At the hearing, Wayne Monteith, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, said operational tests of SDI would begin soon, although there wasn’t a timeline for full integration of SDI. Work on it has accelerated, he said, since the project was handed over to Teri Bristol, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO).

“We have seen tremendous, tremendous progress in just the last two years as Teri Bristol and the ATO has taken this responsibility on with our technical help,” he said in the call with reporters.

Currently, participation in the SDI is voluntary. Besides SpaceX, which started cooperating with the FAA on the SDI in 2016, others include Blue Origin, Firefly Aerospace and Alaska Aerospace Corporation, which operates the launch site on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Monteith didn’t give a schedule for bringing other companies into the system, but emphasized the importance of having an automated system like SDI to improve safety.

There are limits, though, to what tools like SDI can do to improve management of launches in the National Airspace System. On June 29, the first Transporter-2 launch attempt was scrubbed shortly after a helicopter entered restricted airspace near the pad, halting the countdown seconds before liftoff. “Unfortunately, launch is called off for today, as an aircraft entered the ‘keep out zone’, which is unreasonably gigantic,” Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, tweeted shortly after the scrub. “There is simply no way that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization without major regulatory reform. The current regulatory system is broken.”

Arel said that SDI did not play a factor in the Transporter-2 scrub, since the airspace violation took place before launch. “It was ready to be used for the first attempt and was not needed,” he said.

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NASA seeking proposals for next phase of Artemis lunar lander services despite industry protests

lunar lander

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.

NASA announced plans for NextSTEP Appendix N in late April, shortly after awarding a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX as the sole winner of the Human Landing System (HLS) competition for development of a lander and a single demonstration mission with astronauts. NextSTEP Appendix N is intended to be the first step in the future Lunar Exploration Transportation Services (LETS) program to acquire landing services after the Artemis 3 mission.

“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.

A NASA authorization bill included in broader competitiveness legislation passed by the Senate June 8 would direct NASA to select a second HLS company, authorizing about $10 billion for the overall HLS program through 2025. The House has yet to take up its own NASA bill, though, and appropriators are only now beginning work on fiscal year 2022 spending bills.

“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.”

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Who will race SpaceX to the moon?

For months, NASA had strongly suggested that it would select two companies for the next phase of its Human Landing System (HLS) program. Just as with the commercial cargo and crew programs, agency officials said, having two companies develop and demonstrate lunar landers would provide redundancy and ensure NASA was getting the best deal.

“Competition — having multiple suppliers for us — is an extremely important principle,” Mark Kirasich, director of NASA’s advanced exploration systems division, which includes the HLS program, said at a conference in February.

So, it was a surprise when NASA announced April 16 that it had picked just one company for what it calls an “Option A” award to develop a lunar lander and fly a single demonstration mission with astronauts on board. Even more surprising was the company NASA selected: SpaceX, whose Starship vehicle appeared massively oversized for the job. However, the end of the HLS competition does not necessarily mean the end of the overall competition to send astronauts to the surface of the moon.

“THIS IS ACTUALLY DOABLE”

Going into the HLS Option A competition, SpaceX was widely considered the underdog. It received the smallest of the three base period awards for the program in April 2020, at $135 million, compared to Blue Origin’s $579 million and Dynetics’ $253 million. NASA’s assessment of those original proposals graded SpaceX lower than Blue Origin and Dynetics, with limited confidence “in SpaceX’s ability to successfully execute on its proposed HLS development schedule,” according to a source selection statement.

But at the April 16 announcement — held late on a Friday afternoon with just a couple hours’ notice — NASA said SpaceX offered not only the best proposal, but the only one the agency could afford. “It was in NASA’s best interest, along with the budget that was there, for us to award to one,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

Blue Origin’s “National Team” HLS proposal, at $5.99 billion, was twice as much as SpaceX’s winning bid. Credit: Blue Origin

In the source selection statement for the Option A competition, SpaceX had a technical score of “Acceptable,” the same as Blue Origin and higher than Dynetics’ “Marginal.” Its managerial score of “Outstanding” beat out the “Very Good” scores from the other two companies. But the biggest difference was price: SpaceX bid $2.89 billion, while Blue Origin was “significantly higher” than that; Dynetics was “significantly higher” than Blue Origin.

That price difference was a key factor for NASA, which received only $850 million for the HLS program in fiscal year 2021, one-fourth of its original request. Lueders wrote in the source selection statement that “at the initial prices and milestone payment phasing proposed by each of the Option A offerors, NASA’s current fiscal year budget did not support even a single Option A award.” NASA then asked SpaceX to make an unspecified change to its payment schedule, but not its overall price, before making an award.

That ruled out, she argued in the document, picking a second company, even if NASA asked it to lower its price. After selecting SpaceX, she wrote, “the amount of remaining available funding is so insubstantial” it wasn’t feasible to ask either company to revise their proposals.

NASA said little at the announcement about the technical merits of SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander, beyond that it met or exceeded various requirements. “SpaceX also, I’m sure, will be very happy to talk about their strategy,” Lueders said. But SpaceX wasn’t represented at the briefing and the company, which eschews press releases and routinely ignores media inquiries, said nothing beyond a single tweet stating it was “humbled” to win the contract.

A week later, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk discussed the HLS award during a NASA briefing about the launch of the Crew-2 commercial crew mission. “It’s definitely going to be really helpful funding the Starship program,” he said. Asked later in the briefing if a 2024 Starship lunar landing with astronauts was feasible, he agreed.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said, then paused. “I think it will happen. I think 2024 seems likely. We’re going to aim for sooner than that. This is actually doable.”

REDUNDANCY NOW

Neither Blue Origin nor Dynetics are giving up on their lunar lander ambitions. On April 26, the companies filed separate protests with the Government Accountability Office, seeking to overturn the HLS Option A award.

Both companies alleged in their protests that NASA improperly evaluated the technical merits of their proposals and, in the words of Blue Origin’s protest, “unreasonably favored” SpaceX’s proposal. Blue Origin, for example, claimed NASA improperly concluded there were problems with its lander’s communications system, while Dynetics argued NASA overlooked the steps the company was taking to reduce the mass of its overweight lander.

The two companies also took issue with the rationale NASA used to select a single company. Blue Origin revealed in its protest that it bid $5.99 billion for the HLS Option A award. While twice as high as SpaceX’s bid, it argued that the combination of the two would have cost NASA about the same as what it spent on the commercial crew program, which supported Boeing and SpaceX.

Blue Origin complained that NASA didn’t give it a chance to revise its bid. Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs at Blue Origin, said in the protest that had NASA informed the company that budget issues would preclude the agency from making two awards, “Blue Origin would have welcomed the opportunity to offer specific adjustments in a revised proposal.”

Dynetics’ HLS proposal was “significantly higher” than Blue Origin’s. Credit: Dynetics

Dynetics took a somewhat different approach. It argued that NASA overlooked several alternatives when it decided to make a single award, from going back to the companies for revised proposals to canceling the solicitation entirely. Another option it highlighted was for NASA to use the available funding for multiple awards of “sustainable” lander studies, a separate contract line item in the solicitation, rather than a single Option A award.

“This whole mechanism was set up to be very flexible, and they didn’t really use the flexibility they had,” a source familiar with Dynetics’ protest said.

Those protests are now in the hands of the GAO, which has until Aug. 4 to sustain or deny them. NASA announced April 30 it was suspending work on the HLS award it gave to SpaceX “until GAO resolves all outstanding litigation related to this procurement.”

To many, the protests are not surprising, given they’re common for any large government procurement. “I expected them to come. They’re a normal part of life in Washington,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), chair of the House space subcommittee. “The authorities will sort through it and we will move on.”

Others in Congress are taking a different approach to giving companies a second chance at HLS. The Senate Commerce Committee approved May 12 a NASA authorization bill as an amendment to legislation for the National Science Foundation called the Endless Frontier Act.

The amendment, introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the committee, is similar to a NASA authorization bill that the Senate approved at the end of the last Congress. This version includes a new “competitiveness within the Human Landing System program” provision that directs NASA to have no fewer than two companies under contract to develop lunar landers within 30 days of the bill’s enactment, and authorizes $10.032 billion for the HLS program — slightly above the combination of the SpaceX and Blue Origin bids.

The committee didn’t discuss the amendment, which passed on a voice vote, and it’s uncertain the amendment will make its way to a final version of the bill. However, Cantwell previously stated she was disappointed NASA did not pick two companies for HLS. “I think there needs to be redundancy, and it has to be clear in this process that it can’t be redundancy later. It has to be redundancy now,” she told Bill Nelson, the nominee for NASA administrator, during his April 21 confirmation hearing.

LETS MAKE A DEAL

Nelson, at that hearing, said he supported the agency’s approach to the HLS procurement, including its plans to accelerate the acquisition of lander services that will be open to competition. “Those competitions will be there,” he promised Cantwell.

NASA is proposing to acquire lander missions after the single Option A mission through a program called Lunar Exploration Transportation Services (LETS). NASA foresees LETS being a full and open competition, with multiple companies winning contracts to transport astronauts to the surface of the moon and back, similar to its space station commercial cargo and crew contracts.

The actual LETS competition is “still a few steps away,” cautioned Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA HLS program manager, in an April 29 statement. The first of those steps was a request for information (RFI) asking industry for input on how to structure the LETS program.

NASA will follow with a broad agency announcement as soon as June to fund risk reduction work for those lunar landers. At a May 3 industry day, Watson-Morgan said NASA would make several awards, but each would likely be no more than $15 million, a tiny fraction of the development cost of a lunar lander. “We do not have a tremendous amount of dollars,” she said.

That could be too little and too late for some companies that don’t have wealthy founders or other access to capital. “Putting out an RFI for something that’s a couple years from now, well, there’s not going to be anybody left,” said one industry source. “Other than billionaires who can choose to keep things around, you’re not going to have others left in the game that are going to give you real competition.”

Even a company like Blue Origin that’s funded by billionaire Jeff Bezos will be at a disadvantage to SpaceX in any LETS competition thanks to SpaceX’s HLS award. That assumes, though, that SpaceX will successfully develop Starship on a schedule like what it proposes.

“I tend to be somewhat optimistic with respect to schedules,” Musk said, laughing, during the Crew-2 press conference shortly before he predicted a 2024 landing. “Also, we need to be, like, not making craters.”

He laughed again. “We’ve got some work to do, but we’re making rapid progress.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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SpaceX’s NASA Starship contract safe for now as Blue Origin looks to Congress

Fresh off of a major contract loss during a competition to build NASA’s next crewed Moon lander, Blue Origin has begun aggressively lobbying Congress for the contract NASA didn’t give it.

Thankfully, albeit not at first, a modification has been made to an amendment first proposed by a Senator that has long pursued favorable treatment of Blue Origin that will prevent that legislation – if it passes – from unfairly interrupting the $2.9 billion contract NASA already awarded SpaceX. Announced on April 16th, that award came as a shock, effectively cementing SpaceX’s lunar Starship as both the cheapest and most technically sound proposal to return humanity to the Moon.

As such, although NASA made it clear that it would have selected two of the three competing proposals in a perfect scenario, Congress allocated just a quarter of the Human Landing System (HLS) funding NASA requested, forcing the agency between a rock and a hard place.

NASA repeatedly stated as much both before and after the decision was announced, effectively implying that the agency had learned its lesson with the Commercial Crew Program, in which it had selected two redundant providers – Boeing and SpaceX – only for Congress to systematically underfund the program for years. As a direct result of years of underfunding during an early and formative period, both providers suffered at least 2-3 years of delays, followed by another few years of more organic delays as development matured and new challenges were unsurprisingly uncovered.

Politically, NASA could never say that – effectively biting the hand that (under)feeds – out loud, but it was strongly implied in an official HLS source selection statement released to partially explain why it had chosen SpaceX and SpaceX alone. Almost instantly, both losing competitors – Blue Origin and Dynetics – filed protests with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) filled with far more bizarre, rambling tangents than coherent legal arguments.

Unless GAO operates on a different standard than the court of law or uncovers something nefarious behind closed doors, a close reading of both partially redacted protests does not bode well for either document’s ability to sway the office’s opinion. Almost as if Blue Origin itself is aware of just how frivolous its protest really is, the company – seemingly backed by partners Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Leidos – wasted no time lobbying Senator Maria Cantwell for an alternate avenue to get what it wants and the government money founder Jeff Bezos feels entitled to.

Cantwell represents Washington State, where both Amazon and Blue Origin are headquartered, and has frequently spoken out in support of – or personally introduced – legislation that would specifically favor Bezos’ space company. On May 12th, Cantwell introduced an amendment that would purportedly “maintain competitiveness” by forcing NASA to select a second HLS winner in addition to SpaceX. Without irony, the authorization bill also demanded that NASA make that decision within a mere 30 days.

Under those conditions, Congress would authorize $10 billion for NASA to develop and demonstrate two landers with an uncrewed and crewed Moon landing each – the original plan. Insultingly, Cantwell tacked that amendment onto an authorization bill, meaning that even if Congress were to pass the bill and the President were to sign it into law, Congress would still have to actually allocate that $10 billion in the form of a more than 10% boost to NASA’s annual budget. Historically, even if Congress were to defy all recent precedent and significantly boost NASA’s 2022 budget, there is no guarantee that that raise would be upheld for four or more years, which it would need to be for the authorization bill to be anything more than a hollow promise.

More recently, a clause was thankfully added clarifying that NASA is not allowed to “modify, terminate, or rescind” SpaceX’s HLS contract to comply with the amendment. Additionally, while still amounting to a legal gun to NASA’s head to force it to into a contract it knows it cant afford, the modification gives NASA 60 days to award a second lander contract. Based on the agency’s own selection statement, Blue Origin’s National Team would almost certainly be the recipient in the event that the bill becomes law, forcing NASA to commit more than $9 billion – instead of $2.9 billion – to the next stage of HLS development with no guarantee that its budget will be raised accordingly.

In the meantime, GAO still has to complete its reviews of Blue Origin and Dynetic’s protests and the White House has to submit its FY2022 budget request and consider adding NASA funding to its proposed jobs and infrastructure package.

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Senate bill would direct NASA to select a second HLS company

Starship

WASHINGTON — An amendment to a Senate bill would require NASA to select a second company for its Human Lander System program, a provision some fear could upend the overall effort to return humans to the moon as soon as 2024.

The Senate Commerce Committee approved in a markup session May 12 a NASA authorization bill as an amendment to the Endless Frontier Act, a bill that would establish a new technology directorate for the National Science Foundation. The amendment was one of dozens considered by the committee during the session, which ultimately approved the bill on a 24–4 vote.

The amendment, known as the Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency (SPACE) Act of 2021, is a version of a similar bill the Senate considered in 2020 but was not enacted. As the name suggests, it addresses issues associated with space traffic management, including directing the Office of Space Commerce to handle civil space traffic management responsibilities.

The amendment, though, also includes a NASA authorization for fiscal year 2021 similar to one the Senate approved at the end of 2020. A new provision in that amendment covers “competitiveness within the Human Landing System program,” the NASA program to fund development of crewed lunar landers. NASA awarded a single HLS “Option A” contract to SpaceX April 16 valued at $2.89 billion to develop a lander based on the company’s Starship vehicle and to fly a single demonstration mission.

The amendment directs NASA to fund development of “not fewer than 2 entities” in the HLS program no later than 30 days after the bill is enacted. It would authorize a total of $10.032 billion for the program, although funding would have to be appropriated separately, and on an annual basis.

The language has raised questions about how it would be implemented. It is unclear how the agency would select a second provider, as it could not run a new procurement within 30 days. Selecting one of the losing Option A bidders, Blue Origin or Dynetics, based on their original proposals could prompt a protest from the other company or from SpaceX, according to industry sources. The Government Accountability Office is reviewing protests filed by Blue Origin and Dynetics about NASA’s selection of SpaceX for the single HLS award, with a decision due by Aug. 4.

“By purchasing commercial services to take astronauts from lunar orbit to land on the surface of the moon, we will ensure a robust deep space transportation system is in place as we learn to live and work on another world for the benefit of all. NASA is unable to comment on the proposed amendment due to ongoing litigation of the recent Human Landing System selection,” the agency said in a statement to SpaceNews, referring to the GAO protests.

Neither that provision nor the overall amendment was discussed by the committee during its markup. However, the chair of the committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), has previously made clear she was disappointed that NASA, citing budget constraints, selected only one company for HLS Option A awards.

“I have to say I was surprised last week about the Human Landing System development contract,” Cantwell said at the April 21 confirmation hearing for Bill Nelson’s nomination to be NASA administrator. Nelson, during the hearing, committed to accelerating a competition for a future lunar landing services, but Cantwell pushed for faster action. “I think there needs to be redundancy, and it has to be clear in this process that it can’t be redundancy later. It has to be redundancy now.”

There is no guarantee that this language will make it into the final version of the bill, assuming it passes both the House and Senate. Efforts to pass NASA authorization legislation of any kind in recent years have foundered because of disagreements between the House and Senate and the relatively low priority of such legislation.

NASA has started planning for those follow-on service contracts, known as Lunar Exploration Transportation Services (LETS). NASA issued a request for information April 28, seeking feedback on a proposed broad agency announcement that NASA plans to issue this summer before the overall LETS procurement.

That broad agency announcement, known as Appendix N of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, would support initial risk reduction work for the later LETS procurement. At a May 3 industry day, Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA HLS program manager, said the agency hopes to issue a formal request for proposals in June and make selections between August and October.

The awards, though, will be no more than about $15 million each, and have periods of performance of only 7 to 12 months. “The funding is TBD,” she said. “We think we are able to award a few at $15 million.”

The later LETS award could include some funding for design, development, testing and evaluation work, although specific details remain uncertain, Watson-Morgan said. The contracts would cover at least six missions starting in the late 2020s, she said, with at least two missions per contractor.

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SpaceX’s upgraded Starship set for test flight despite sore NASA contract losers

Within the last week, while SpaceX has been diligently working to ready an upgraded Starship prototype for its first launch, former competitors Blue Origin and Dynetics – both of which recently lost a historic NASA Moon lander contract to SpaceX – have filed “protests” and forced the space agency to freeze work (and funds).

That means that NASA is now legally unable to use funds or resources related to its Human Lander System (HLS) program or the $2.9 billion contract it awarded SpaceX on April 16th to develop a variant of Starship to return humanity to the Moon. However, just like SpaceX has already spent a great deal of its own time and money on Starship development and – more recently – a rapid-fire series of launches, the company appears to have no intention of letting sore losers hamper its rocket factory or test campaign.

Instead, on the same two days Blue Origin and Dynetics loudly filed official protests with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), SpaceX performed two back-to-back static fire tests with a Starship prototype and Raptor engines outfitted with “hundreds of improvements.” Technical challenges and unsavory weather conditions forced SpaceX to call off a launch planned sometime last week but the company now appears to be on track to launch Starship prototype SN15 as early as Tuesday, May 4th.

In principle, the ability for companies to protest US government contracting decisions is a necessity and (nominally) a net good but it can easily be misused – and often in damaging ways. In the case of Blue Origin and Dynetics, it’s difficult not to perceive both protests as examples of the latter.

Blue Origin effectively disagrees with every single major point made and conclusion drawn by NASA’s Source Selection Authority (Kathy Lueders) and a separate panel of experts – often to the point that the company is strongly implying that it understands NASA’s contracting process better than the space agency itself. Blue Origin partners Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are both partially or fully responsible for several of their own catastrophic acquisition boondoggles (F-35, Orion, SLS, James Webb Space Telescope, and are part of the military-industrial complex primarily responsible for turning US military and aerospace procurement into the quagmire of political interests, quasi-monopolies, and loopholes it is today.

The primary argument is generally shared by both protestors. In essence, Dynetics [p. 23; PDF] and Blue Origin [PDF] believe that it was unfair or improper for NASA to select just a single provider from the three companies or groups that competed. They argue that downselecting to one provider in lieu of budget shortfalls changed the procurement process and competition so much that NASA should have effectively called it quits and restarted the entire five-month process. Blue Origin and Dynetics also both imply that they were somehow blindsided by NASA’s concerns about a Congressional funding shortfall.

In reality, NASA could scarcely have been clearer that it was exceptionally sensitive about HLS funding and extremely motivated to attempt to return humans to the Moon by 2024 with or without the full support of Congress – albeit in fewer words. As Lueders herself noted in the HLS Option A award selection statement, the solicitation Blue, Dynetics, and SpaceX responded to states – word for word – that “the overall number of awards will be dependent upon funding availability and evaluation results.”

Additionally, implications that NASA somehow blindsided offerors with its lack of funding are woefully ignorant at best and consciously disingenuous at worse. Anyone with even the slightest awareness of the history of large-scale NASA programs would know that the space agency’s budget is all but exclusively determined by Congress each year and liable to change just as frequently if political winds shift. Short of blackmailing members of Congress or wistfully hoping that other avenues of legal political influence and partnership actually lead to desired funding and priorities appearing in appropriations legislation, NASA knows the future of its budget about as well as anyone else with access to the internet and a rudimentary awareness of history and current events.

It became clear that Congress was likely to drastically underfund NASA’s HLS program as early as November 2020 – weeks before HLS Option A proposals were due. The latest appropriations bill was passed on January 3rd, 2021, providing NASA $850 million of the ~$3.4 billion it requested for HLS. Historically, NASA’s experience with the Commercial Crew Program – public knowledge available to anyone – likely made it clear to the agency that it could not trust Congress to fund its priorities in good faith when half a decade of drastic underfunding ultimately delayed the critical program by several years. That damage was done by merely halving NASA Commercial Crew budget request from 2010 to 2013, whereas Congress had already set itself on a path to provide barely a quarter of the HLS funds NASA asked for in the weeks before Moon lander proposals were due.

Ultimately, the protests filed by Blue Origin and Dynetics are packed to the brim with petty axe-grinding, attempts to paint SpaceX in a negative light, and a general lack of indication that either company is operating in good faith. Instead, their protests appear all but guaranteed to fail while simultaneously forcing NASA to freeze HLS work and delay related disbursements for up to 100 days. Given that SpaceX is now technically working to design, build, qualify, and fly an uncrewed Lunar Starship prototype by 2023 and a crewed demonstration landing by 2024, 100 days represents a full 7-10% of the time that’s available to complete that extraordinary task.

Ironically, the protests made by Blue Origin and Dynetics have already helped demonstrate why NASA’s decision – especially in light of unambiguous budgetary restrictions – to sole-source its HLS Moon lander contract to SpaceX was an astute one. Had a victorious Blue Origin or Dynetics been in a similar position to SpaceX, it’s almost impossible to imagine either team continuing work to a significant degree in lieu of NASA funding or direction. SpaceX, on the other hand, hasn’t missed a beat and looks set to continue Starship development, production, and testing around the clock regardless of NASA’s capacity to help.

In other words, with a little luck, the actual schedule impact of a maximum 100-day work and funding freeze should be a tiny fraction of what it could have been if NASA had selected an HLS provider more interested in profit margins and stock buybacks than creating a sustainable path for humanity’s expansion beyond Earth.

The post SpaceX’s upgraded Starship set for test flight despite sore NASA contract losers appeared first on TESLARATI.

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Op-ed | Competition delivers the goods and the crew for all NASA commercial space services

On April 23, SpaceX launched a crew of international astronauts to the Space Station. This marks the third human spaceflight success for the firm’s Crew Dragon Capsule, developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew program. The amazing accomplishments of this program and of its predecessor, Comercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), which funded development of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and the cargo version of Dragon, depended not only on great engineering by SpaceX and other NASA vendors, but also upon the power of system redundancy and market competition. Both programs succeed, in great part, because NASA had two systems and two vendors. While we celebrate that, it appears that those lessons were not fully internalized on Capitol Hill.

During my service on the previous NASA transition team (2016-2017), one of the first decisions we faced was the question of continuing the Obama-era Commercial Crew program. That effort to deliver American astronauts to the International Space Station on commercial capsules was running years behind schedule due to the reluctance of Congress to fully fund the NASA request. There were also technical challenges facing both vendors, Boeing and SpaceX. Meanwhile, the loss of COTS payloads in both 2014 and 2015 demonstrated both the vulnerability of complex systems as well as the power of redundant systems to achieve programmatic objectives. With Commercial Crew vehicles behind schedule and on half-funding, some members of our team and some senior NASA officials supported a downselect of the program to a single vendor, so they could fully fund one system. I opposed that. 

I felt strongly that technical redundancy and market competition were central to the principle of commercial space contracting. Any one system would leave us with the vulnerabilities that had plagued the space shuttle program. On the two occasions when a shuttle was lost, the United States was out of the space business for three years of investigations and re-engineering. Without the redundancy of Russian vehicles, the 2003 Columbia disaster would likely have resulted in abandonment of the International Space Station and a $100 billion U.S. investment and put the remaining station crew at risk. A failure of such magnitude could have marked the end of NASA human spaceflight.

Shuttle flights were also far more expensive than their originally projected costs, in part because the program became “too big to fail.” This is a condition NASA and the Defense Department have faced with many single vendor programs, including the current James Webb Space Telescope, the Space Launch System and the infamous F-35. The competition for the award and the intentions of the contract are easily lost once the governmental buyer lacks the leverage provided by having another vendor. Skipping competition in actual services is not an option.

Thankfully, Commercial Crew went forward with two vendors and funding was ticked up a bit. It worked. SpaceX now provides regular access to ISS on American rockets launched from American soil, rendering recent Russian threats to leave the space station less concerning. Meanwhile, Boeing, which experienced software failures during the demonstration flight of their CST-100 Starliner is re-flying that $400 million mission on their own dime. Redundancy saves lives and competition saves money.

I was therefore frustrated by NASA’s announcement of April 16 that, due primarily to insufficient congressional funding, they were downselecting the lunar Human Landing System (HLS) for the Artemis program from three to just one vendor, SpaceX. Selection of SpaceX’s Starship pleased me in that it represents a uniquely bold vision for space transportation to the moon, to Mars and beyond. Further, SpaceX has demonstrated the ability to outperform its competitors while receiving smaller awards that it effectively leverages with significant amounts of private capital. NASA’s source selection statement is intended to provide a non-political overview of all of the vendors’ merits in technical approach, management approach and cost. The document released last this month suggests that SpaceX offered more bang for the Buck Rogers. The firm also has a strong recent history of delivering for NASA. 

However, as a student of history and someone who has been there, no amount of such analysis will convince me that a single vendor solution is the right option here. The proposals from Blue Origin and Dynetics also merit development. Congress must sufficiently fund the HLS program for the currently selected vendor and provide for competition. NASA’s vague promises of future services contracts for undefined lunar missions after Artemis 3, will not suffice for companies expected to invest billions of dollars and retain thousands of workers on their payrolls. NASA must clarify its commitment to a sustained lunar presence and future lunar transportation requirements.

I have immense respect for the fine choices President Biden has made with his NASA nominees, including the selection of former Sen. Bill Nelson for administrator, Pam Melroy as deputy administrator, Margaret Vo Schaus as CFO and particularly acting Chief of Staff Bhavya Lal who has done yeoman’s work to support the continuity of the Artemis program. I hope that team will work to convince OMB and Congress that in an environment as unforgiving as space, nothing is more expensive than short-term financial thinking. They must insist on funding adequate to support HLS competition, now. If they do not, we may someday find ourselves paying China for rides to the moon.


Greg Autry is a Clinical Professor of Space Leadership, Policy and Business with the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. He serves as Chair of the Safety Working Group on the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee at the FAA. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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Dynetics protests NASA HLS award

Dynetics lunar lander

WASHINGTON — Dynetics has joined Blue Origin in filing a protest of NASA’s selection of SpaceX for a single Human Landing System award, a move that could force the agency to suspend work on the program.

In a statement April 27, Dynetics said it filed a protest of the HLS award with the Government Accountability Office the previous day. Blue Origin, the other losing bidder in the competition, filed its own protest of the award with the GAO the same day.

“Dynetics has issues and concerns with several aspects of the acquisition process as well as elements of NASA’s technical evaluation and filed a protest with the GAO to address them,” the company said in a statement to SpaceNews. “We respect this process and look forward [to] a fair and informed resolution of the matter.”

The company did not elaborate on the specific “issues and concerns” it had with the HLS acquisition process, but noted it believed “NASA’s initial plan for continued competition remains the best approach to ensure program success.” The company said it would not comment further on the protest.

NASA selected one company, SpaceX, for an “Option A” award April 16 to fund development of a crewed lunar lander and a demonstration mission, after earlier indicating that it would select one or two companies. The agency said in a source selection statement that budget shortfalls made it impossible for the agency to select two, and had to ask SpaceX, the lowest bidder, to revise its proposed payment schedule to fit into its budget profile.

Of the three bidders, Dynetics was the lowest ranked. It had a technical rating of “Marginal,” one step below the “Acceptable” that Blue Origin and SpaceX received. Its Management rating of “Very Good” was the same as Blue Origin but one step below SpaceX’s “Outstanding.”

In the source selection statement, Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the Dynetics lander “suffered from a number of serious drawbacks” that increased risk. The lander was overweight, which at this early stage of development “calls into question the feasibility of Dynetics’ mission architecture and its ability to successfully close its mission as proposed,” she wrote. The evaluation also questioned the maturity of the technology for performing in-space cryogenic fluid transfer required to refuel the lander, as the company planned.

Lueders concluded that “while Dynetics’ proposal does have some meritorious technical and management attributes, it is overall of limited merit and is only somewhat in alignment with the objectives as set forth in this solicitation.” The document only stated that Dynetics’ proposal had a price “significantly higher” than Blue Origin’s proposal, which in turn was significantly higher than SpaceX’s winning bid of $2.89 billion. Blue Origin disclosed in its protest that it bid $5.99 billion.

NASA made the HLS award so that it could seamlessly shift from the original “base period” contracts issued nearly one year ago and set to expire April 30 to the Option A award. However, NASA Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk said it’s uncertain if the two protests will suspend that work.

“We’ve been made aware of the protests by both Blue Origin and Dynetics from GAO,” he said during an April 27 webinar by the Space Transportation Association. “It’s too soon to be determined whether that’s going to delay moving forward or whether we can keep things moving forward. We’re working through that right now.”

In September 2014, Sierra Nevada Corporation filed a protest of NASA’s award of commercial crew development contracts to Boeing and SpaceX. NASA instructed those two companies to stop work on those contracts, but within a couple weeks lifted those stop-work orders, citing “statutory authority available to it” to allow work to continue while the GAO reviewed the protest. GAO dismissed the protest in January 2015.

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Blue Origin protests NASA Human Landing System award

Blue Origin human lunar lander

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office April 26 over NASA’s decision to select only SpaceX for its Human Landing System (HLS) program, arguing the agency “moved the goalposts” of the competition.

The company, in a lengthy filing with the GAO, claimed that in addition to not giving companies the opportunity to change their proposals to reflect the agency’s reduced budget for HLS, NASA improperly evaluated aspects of its proposal as well as the one by SpaceX, the company that won the $2.89 billion contract April 16 to develop a crewed lunar lander and perform a demonstration mission.

“NASA has executed a flawed acquisition for the Human Landing System program and moved the goalposts at the last minute,” the company said in a statement provided to SpaceNews about its protest. “In NASA’s own words, it has made a ‘high risk’ selection.”

Blue Origin says in the GAO protest that its “National Team,” which included Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, bid $5.99 billion for the HLS award, slightly more than double SpaceX’s bid. However, it argues that it was not given the opportunity to revise that bid when NASA concluded that the funding available would not allow it to select two bidders, as originally anticipated. NASA requested $3.3 billion for HLS in its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal but received only $850 million in an omnibus appropriations bill passed in December 2020.

“NASA’s source selection rationale improperly justifies the selection of a lone provider as a result of ‘anticipated future funding for the HLS Program,’” Blue Origin’s protest states. It notes that the combination of its bid and SpaceX’s bid, about $9 billion, is similar to what NASA spent on the commercial crew program, where NASA “made two awards with less available funding and less out-year funding certainty.”

“Blue Origin was plainly prejudiced by the Agency’s failure to communicate this change in requirements,” it states, by not giving the company an opportunity to revise its proposal. “Blue Origin could have and would have taken several actions to revise its proposed approach, reduce its price to more closely align with funding available to the Agency, and/or propose schedule alternatives” if given the opportunity by NASA.

Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs at Blue Origin, said in an affidavit included in the protest that the company received no feedback from the company’s proposal until NASA notified it April 16 that the agency had not selected it for an award.

“If NASA had notified Blue Origin that the Source Selection Official’s assessment of available out-year budget would preclude an award absent a repriced Blue Origin proposal, Blue Origin would have welcomed the opportunity to offer specific adjustments in a revised proposal,” he wrote, such as having the company pay a greater share of the overall development cost.

Blue Origin also criticized NASA’s assessment of Blue Origin’s proposal on several technical and managerial grounds. That includes a claim in the source selection statement that the proposal included advanced payments not allowed in the proposal and thus grounds for ruling the proposal ineligible for an award, and another that raised questions about the communications system for the lander.

The company also argued that NASA “unreasonably favored” SpaceX’s Starship lander in its evaluation. SpaceX, it argued, needs to develop a fully reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle rapidly and use “never-before-tested on-orbit refueling” to be successful. “In contrast, Blue Origin’s proposal is compatible with existing launch vehicles, utilizes only 3 launches, and employs heritage systems that have been flight tested,” it argued.

“The Agency unreasonably favored SpaceX’s evaluation by minimizing significant risks in SpaceX’s design and schedule, while maximizing the same or similar risks in Blue Origin’s proposal,” it concluded. “Such an evaluation is unreasonable and prejudiced Blue Origin.”

Blue Origin argued that, by selecting SpaceX, NASA is jeopardizing the broader commercial space industry. “This single award endangers domestic supply chains for space and negatively impacts jobs across the country, by placing NASA space exploration in the hands of one vertically integrated enterprise that manufactures virtually all its own components and obviates a broad-based nationwide supplier network,” it stated. “Starship is incompatible with other U.S. commercial launch vehicles, further restricting NASA’s alternatives and entrenching SpaceX’s monopolistic control of NASA deep space exploration.”

“Their decision eliminates opportunities for competition, significantly narrows the supply base, and not only delays, but also endangers America’s return to the moon. Because of that, we’ve filed a protest with the GAO,” Blue Origin said in its statement to SpaceNews about its decision to protest the HLS award.

Protests of major NASA contracts are not uncommon. In 2014, Sierra Nevada Corporation protested NASA’s selection of Boeing and SpaceX for commercial crew development awards. The GAO, though, rejected that protest in January 2015.

Blue Origin is no stranger to GAO protests either. It filed a “pre-award” protest of the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 procurement in 2019, arguing that the terms of request for proposals did not allow a full and open competition. The GAO sustained one aspect of that protest, regarding looking at the best value of proposals “when combined,” but rejected other aspects of it. Blue Origin ultimately did not win a launch contract, but did not file a GAO protest.

In a December 2020 report, the GAO said it sustained 15% of protests it resolved in fiscal year 2020, compared to 13% in fiscal year 2019. The main reasons for sustaining protests were unreasonable technical evaluations, flaws in the solicitation, and unreasonable evaluations of cost or past performance.

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