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

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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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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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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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NASA selects SpaceX to develop crewed lunar lander

Starship

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.

NASA officials previously stated they would attempt to make more than one Option A award in order to preserve competition in the program. “Competition — having multiple suppliers for us — is an extremely important principle. It’s on our minds,” Mark Kirasich, director of the advanced exploration systems division at NASA, said in February.

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.”

Future competition

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.

Reactions

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.”

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NASA’s next giant leaps

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.

“One thing that we were striving for is to see what U.S. industry could bring us with respect to innovation. And boy, did they deliver.” Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA HLS program manager. Credit: NASA video still

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.”

Artemis astronauts engage in lunar surface operations a short distance from a generic lander and rover in this NASA artist’s concept.

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.

“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. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

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.

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NASA evaluation sees SpaceX lunar lander as innovative but risky

Starship lunar lander

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.”

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NASA selects three companies for human landing system awards

Starship lunar lander

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.

Dynetics lunar lander Blue Origin human lunar lander

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.

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