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Op-ed | The Success of Artemis Hinges on NASA’s Commitment to Competition

Clockwise from left: Human Landing System concepts from SpaceX, Dynetics and Blue Origin.

The United States is about to take its next giant leap into space – the return of U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2024, this time to stay.  As the final step in landing astronauts on the moon, the Human Landing System (HLS) will play a significant role in the success of the Artemis program. However, the path forward is as precarious as it is aggressive, and NASA’s decision to rely on a sole company (SpaceX) to land our astronauts on the surface of the moon has made a challenging operation even riskier. Perhaps more importantly, funding a single HLS provider deprives NASA of the benefits of competition among contractors. 

NASA’s decision to award nearly $3 billion to SpaceX in April to produce the HLS has resulted in a rising tide of political and expert opinion calling for NASA to issue a second contract. Not only have both overlooked parties – Dynetics and the National Team led by Blue Origin – protested the award, but the Senate has voted to require that NASA issue a second award in order to restore competition and reduce program risks. A House appropriations subcommittee has also advanced a bill that increased funding for the HLS program, but was silent as to any requirements in regards to spending. 

Competition is the engine of entrepreneurialism. Without it, SpaceX and other companies will lack the impetus to produce a superior product at the best price. In mature industries, a competitive marketplace is maintained through the enforcement of antitrust laws. However, when NASA creates an industry from whole cloth, it is the responsibility of NASA to also create the conditions of a competitive marketplace: by awarding multiple contracts for the product and service. Our capitalist system, defined by healthy competition, is the greatest advantage that the United States has as other countries, including China and Russia, jostle in space for geopolitical supremacy. In a mission as complicated as returning to the moon, the United States needs the most innovative technologies that only a competitive market can produce. 

Kathy Lueders said it best on her first day as the head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, when she christened her era of leadership with the motto “exploration is a team sport.” NASA’s vision, as she went on to explain in her inaugural statement, is for NASA to create a competitive marketplace where NASA will simply be another customer, shopping for the best deal to put their payload in orbit or on the moon:

We took a risk with industry by encouraging commercial innovation in a new market with the end goal of government becoming a customer of low-Earth orbit services, hopefully one of many.

Her comments show obvious pride (and rightly so) in NASA’s innovative procurement programs in recent years. NASA played a groundbreaking role in funding the development of new reusable rocket technology which transformed the U.S. launch service industry. Programs calling for Commercial Crew Development, Commercial Resupply Services, and Commercial Orbital Transportation Services spawned a legion of launch service providers that operate (or plan to operate) in low Earth orbit, with the most notable being SpaceX, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman. 

How did NASA accomplish this? By awarding multiple contracts after competitive bidding. The bidding process ensures healthy competition during the contest for a contract – but the awarding of multiple contracts ensures that the competition will continue post-award because there will be a multiplayer industry where companies will continue to compete for contracts (whether with NASA or with other customers). 

NASA understands the benefits of competition and has largely moved to the model of awarding contracts to multiple companies. In the call for bids for the HLS project, NASA foreshadowed their intent to give multiple awards; but then, clearly under financial pressure after Congress allocated only 25% of the requested funding for the HLS program, NASA issued a single award to SpaceX. By doing this, NASA eliminated all competition and with it all of the benefits of the marketplace.  

Along with eliminating competition, the decision to issue a single award jeopardizes reliability. Lueders said as much in her inaugural statement: “We took a risk with industry . . .” The risk is that, despite NASA’s funding, the selected companies could fail to reliably deliver the needed products/services at a reasonable price. As Scott Pace, formerly executive secretary of the National Space Council, recently pointed out: “It is very dangerous to go to just one [contractor].” The risks of working with a single contractor are nothing new. In the days of the Apollo program, NASA ensured the reliability of a contractor’s work by being far more “hands on” in how they monitored it. Today’s procurement model mitigates reliability risk in a different way: by issuing multiple awards, and thereby maintaining redundant providers of the product/service. 

It is not too late to correct course. Both unsuccessful bidders still have viable bids.  Even smaller split awards would maintain the competition model. If the reduced size of the awards slows the timeline, then Congress will simply have to increase funding.  At the moment, it appears that Congress may intervene and force NASA’s hand (if the House follows the lead of the Senate). But it would be far better if NASA took the opportunity of its own accord, after considering the actions of the Senate and expert opinion, to issue a second (or even a third) award in order to maintain a competitive field in the industry and enhance overall reliability of our human landing systems. By taking action, NASA would be sending a clear message that it is dedicated to creating a vibrant competitive industry of lunar landing technology that will help ensure that the U.S. maintains its position of leadership in space.

Prof. Mark J. Sundahl is a professor of law and the director of the Global Space Law Center at Cleveland State University. He currently serves on NASA’s Regulatory and Policy Committee and is the principal of Astralex LLC which provides consulting services to a range of industry clients, including a company involved in the HLS bidding process. All opinions are those of the author alone.

 

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SpaceX Falcon Heavy to launch NASA ocean moon explorer, saving the US billions

In a move that’s likely to save the US taxpayer several billion dollars over the next few years, NASA has carefully extricated a mission to one of Jupiter’s ocean moons from the claws of its own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

Known as Europa Clipper, the six metric ton (~13,300 lb) spacecraft will instead launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket for less than $180M. Had Falcon Heavy not been ready or NASA shied away from the challenge of switching launch vehicles, sending the ~$4.25 billion orbiter to Jupiter could have easily added more than $3 billion to the mission’s total cost. Instead, Europa Clipper will be able to launch one or two years earlier than SLS would have been ready and at a cost that’s practically a rounding error relative to the alternative.

Measuring approximately 3100 km (~1940 mi) in diameter, Europa is approximately 10% smaller and 30% less massive than Earth’s Moon. Both are similar balls of rock with solid metallic cores. However, based on observations taken over decades by spacecraft and Earth-based telescopes, odds are good that Europa also has a vast liquid water ocean insulated by 10-30 km (6-20 mi) of ice so cold that it’s as hard as granite.

Scientists estimate that Europa’s saltwater ocean is dozens to 100+ km (~62 mi) deep, covers the moon’s entire surface, and holds more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined. Signs of a liquid ocean under Europa’s crust (and the crust of numerous other outer solar system moons, as it would turn out) were especially surprising because of the implication that those moons possessed vast heat sources. In the case of Europa, it’s believed that Jupiter’s immense gravitational pull and the moon’s close orbit are balanced in such a way that Europa is heated as those tidal forces violently stretch and squeeze its interior.

In an orbit 30% lower than Europa, tidal heating is so aggressive that the moon Io is littered with titanic volcanoes and lava lakes more than 200 km (~120 mi) across – so large that waves have been spotted on its surface with Earth-based telescopes. In short, because Europa appears to be in the right place to have enough – but not too much – tidal heating, it’s believed to be one of the best potential harbors of extraterrestrial life and Europa Clipper’s primary purpose is to pursue that potential astrobiological treasure trove.

Europa Clipper’s history is a truly bizarre one. Championed almost singlehandedly by fundamentalist Christian and former Republican Representative John Culberson, it’s almost certain that the mission would have never come together and never secured enough funding to proceed. Culberson’s singular goal: determine if humanity is (or is not) alone in the universe. If life can independently evolve twice in the same average solar system, the logic goes, it would practically guarantee that life will be omnipresent anywhere we look.

Culberson’s original vision was an orbiter (Clipper) that would effectively scout Europa for a lander that would follow just a few years later. Incredibly, he appears to have all but guaranteed that Europa Clipper will launch. However, he lost a reelection bid in 2018, casting the lander component into limbo before proper funding or commitments could be ascertained. It now seems likely that the future of Europa Lander will depend almost entirely on what Clipper does (or doesn’t) find.

Europa Clipper is now scheduled to launch on an expendable Falcon Heavy rocket no earlier than a two-week window set to open in October 2024. As part of the politicking to secure the billions of dollars needed to fund the mission, Culberson originally shackled Europa Clipper to NASA’s SLS rocket – now half a decade behind schedule and set to cost more than $23 billion before its first launch. However, it appears that SLS is so mismanaged and uncharacterized that even its infamously zealous, pork-motivated Congressional cheerleaders weren’t willing to put up a public fight to retain the SLS rocket’s only confirmed non-human payload.

Ultimately, on launch alone, Falcon Heavy’s Europa Clipper launch will likely save taxpayers more than $2 billion – the likely minimum cost of a single SLS Cargo launch. Due to issues with the rocket, Ars Technica also reports that Europa Clipper and SLS would have required at least $1 billion in modifications and upgrades to safely fly, meaning that choosing SpaceX will likely end up saving NASA more than $3 billion – equivalent to almost three-quarters of the entire Europa Clipper mission’s price tag.

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Falcon Heavy to launch Europa Clipper

Europa Clipper

WASHINGTON — NASA has selected SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to launch its Europa Clipper mission to a potentially habitable moon of Jupiter, a choice that appeared inevitable once NASA was no longer required to use the Space Launch System.

NASA announced July 23 that it awarded a launch services contract to SpaceX for the October 2024 launch of Europa Clipper on a Falcon Heavy rocket. The contract is valued at $178 million.

The award to SpaceX was expected after Congress, in the fiscal year 2021 omnibus spending bill passed in December 2020, gave the agency the flexibility to choose an alternative launch vehicle for the mission. Previous years’ spending bills required the use of the SLS for Europa Clipper, even as NASA requested the flexibility to acquire a commercial launch vehicle.

Congress relented because of potential hardware compatibility issues found last year between Europa Clipper and SLS. The 2021 spending bill directed NASA to use SLS for Europa Clipper only if “the SLS is available and if torsional loading analysis has confirmed Clipper’s appropriateness for SLS.”

A month after the passage of the bill, NASA directed the Europa Clipper project to halt all planning for launching the spacecraft on SLS and instead prepare to use a commercial vehicle. “We now have clarity on the launch vehicle path and launch date,” Robert Pappalardo, project scientist for Europa Clipper at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said at a meeting in early February.

That decision made it likely NASA would select SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy given the technical requirements for the mission and the launch vehicles available to meet it. NASA placed Europa Clipper in its “Category 3” requirements for launch services, requiring that vehicles have performed at least three successful launches, including at least two successful consecutive launches.

Falcon Heavy has flown three times, all successfully, although it has not launched since June 2019. Alternative vehicles with the performance required for the mission, such as Blue Origin’s New Glenn and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur, will not make their first launches until at least next year.

Launching Europa Clipper on Falcon Heavy, rather than SLS, results in trade-offs on both cost and schedule. NASA, in its fiscal year 2021 budget request, argued that a commercial launch could save the agency “over $1.5 billion compared to using a Space Launch System rocket.” By contrast, a NASA Office of Inspector General report in 2019 concluded the cost difference could be less than $300 million, although that study estimated the cost of a Falcon Heavy launch at $450 million, more than twice the value of the contract awarded to SpaceX.

What is not in doubt, though, is that SLS would have offered a faster ride for Europa Clipper. An SLS launch would have allowed the spacecraft to fly directly to Jupiter, arriving less than three years after launch. With Falcon Heavy, Europa Clipper will make gravity-assist flybys of Mars and Earth, arriving at Jupiter five and a half years after launch.

The Europa Clipper contract adds to a growing manifest of future Falcon Heavy missions for NASA, the Defense Department and commercial customers. That includes contracts awarded by NASA in February for the launch of the first two modules of the lunar Gateway and by Astrobotic in April for the launch of its Griffin lunar lander carrying a NASA lunar rover. The Gateway launch is currently scheduled for November 2024, just one month after the Europa Clipper launch.

Ironically, the hardware compatibility issue that finally gave NASA the flexibility to select a vehicle other than SLS to launch Europa Clipper may not have been as severe as once thought. While NASA disclosed few specifics about the problem, Steve Jurczyk, NASA acting administrator in March, said it involved higher lateral loads on the spacecraft during an SLS launch than what the spacecraft was designed for.

“Given that the design is done and some of the hardware is already manufactured, it was going to be very challenging from a cost and schedule standpoint to modify the spacecraft or develop an isolation system to handle the lateral load issue,” he said in a March interview.

However, Robert Stough of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, speaking at a meeting of the steering committee of the planetary science decadal survey July 7, argued that engineers had used “very conservative” limits when doing the initial analysis. “It really was a nonissue at the end of the day,” he argued.

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SpaceX Crew Dragon set to make room for Boeing’s Starliner do-over

SpaceX and NASA are on track for the Crew-2 Dragon spacecraft currently docked to the International Space Station (ISS) to perform a “port relocation” maneuver early Wednesday, effectively opening the door for Boeing’s Starlink flight test do-over.

Scheduled to launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket no earlier than (NET) July 30th, Boeing’s Starliner will be flying for the first time since the spacecraft’s near-catastrophic Orbital Flight Test (OFT) debut in December 2019. During Starliner’s inaugural test flight, a combination of inept Boeing software development, shoddy quality control, and inexplicably lax NASA oversight allowed the spacecraft to launch with inoperable software.

As a result, things went wrong mere seconds after Atlas V – which performed nominally – deployed Starliner. Almost as simple as using the wrong clock, the first software fault – something that would have been instantly caught with even the most rudimentary integrated systems test – caused Starliner to think it was in a different part of the OFT mission and waste much of its fuel with thousands of unnecessary thruster firings.

Aside from pushing Starliner’s maneuvering thrusters beyond their design limits, those unplanned and unexpected misfirings also threw the spacecraft off course, obfuscating Boeing and NASA’s ability to communicate and command the spacecraft and troubleshoot the situation at hand. Eventually, the company regained control of Starliner, but not before it had burned through most of its propellant reserves – precluding plans for to rendezvous and dock with the ISS.

Less than three hours before reentry, Boeing also uncovered a separate thruster-related software issue that could have caused the Starliner capsule to lose stability and re-impact its expendable trunk section after separation.

Ultimately, with so many issues and a failure to gather any kind of data related to operations at and around the ISS, NASA thankfully forced Boeing to plan to repeat OFT with Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2). Scheduled to launch in December 2020 as of the second half of that year, OFT-2 ultimately slipped – both for scheduling and technical reasons – to March, June, and finally July 30th, 2021.

Crew Dragon C207 became the first US spacecraft to switch ISS ports in April 2021. (NASA)

More than 19 months after Starliner’s ill-fated debut, NASA and Boeing are now almost ready for the spacecraft’s critical do-over. For unknown reasons, though, NASA and/or Boeing apparently need (or prefer) Starliner to use a specific docking port – the same port SpaceX’s second operational Crew Dragon spacecraft is currently docked to. As a result, SpaceX and NASA have scheduled a port relocation maneuver around 7am EDT (UTC-4) on Wednesday, July 21st.

SpaceX’s first relocation occurred in early April to prepare for the arrival of a second Crew Dragon later that month. When Crew-1 Dragon departed a few weeks after the maneuver, it would leave the station’s zenith (space-facing) port free for a Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft scheduled to arrive around one month later. Due to the station’s geometry and port layout, only the zenith port allows its robotic Canadarm2 arm to unload unpressurized cargo from Dragon’s trunk.

Already at the forward port, the Crew-2 Dragon will thus be moving to the zenith port for Starliner’s brief 1-2 week stay at the ISS. However, as may have become clear, Crew Dragon will then have to re-relocate to the forward port for any future Cargo Dragon missions – one of which happens to be scheduled to launch with an important unpressurized payload as early as August 29th.

Regardless of why, it’s hard to ever complain about seeing Dragons fly. Tune in around 6:30 am EDT (10:30 UTC) to watch Crew Dragon C206 maneuver around an orbital space station.

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SpaceX recovers second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft for future reuse

Four days after reentering Earth’s atmosphere and splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico, SpaceX has safely returned its second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft to dry land back Florida’s East Coast.

On Thursday, July 8th, the uncrewed SpaceX spacecraft officially undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) after more than a month in orbit. When the Cargo Dragon 2 vehicle lifted off on Falcon 9 last month, it was carrying more than 3.3 metric tons (~7300 lb) of food, water, science experiments, and space station hardware – an all-time record for SpaceX and Dragon. When the same spacecraft returned to Earth 36 days later, it splashed down with more than two metric tons (4400 lb) of cargo in tow.

Nine years after Dragon became the first privately-developed spacecraft ever to successfully rendezvous with the International Space Station, it remains the only spacecraft in the world capable of returning significant cargo from orbit, making Dragon truly invaluable.

Over the course of 25 successful orbital Dragon launches and recoveries, SpaceX has used the vast majority of that exclusive capability to safely return approximately 40 metric tons (~90,000 lb) of crucial science experiments, hardware, and more from the space station to Earth.

Cargo Dragon C209 departs the ISS. (Thomas Pesquet – ESA)

Derived from the Dragon capsule’s inherent recoverability, that unique ability to return cargo from orbit has also translated into SpaceX becoming the only entity on Earth regularly reusing orbital spacecraft – second only to NASA and the Space Shuttle. While Dragon is far from the Space Shuttle’s record average of more than two dozen missions per orbiter, SpaceX has reused Dragon capsules ten times and flown capsules on three orbital missions in three separate instances.

Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon 2 build off of that not-insignificant foundation with several iterative improvements, resulting in spacecraft that are far easier and faster to turn around and nominally capable of at least five orbital flights each. Unlike Dragon 1, NASA has also been onboard with Dragon 2 reuse from the start, meaning that SpaceX won’t have to wait years to start reusing its fleet of orbital spacecraft.

Cargo Dragon capsule C209, July 9th. (SpaceX)
Four days after splashdown, Dragon C209 was safely returned to dry land. (Richard Angle)

In fact, SpaceX has already used a Dragon 2 spacecraft, launching two separate groups of astronauts with Crew Dragon capsule C206 in March 2020 and April 2021. Aside from representing the first time in history that space capsule has flown crew twice, capsule C206 also broke SpaceX’s Dragon turnaround record. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s next Dragon mission – CRS-23 – will mark SpaceX’s first reuse of a Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft, flying the same capsule just seven months after its first recovery.

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SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft heads home after a month in orbit

After more than a month in orbit, SpaceX’s second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft has undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) on its way back to Earth.

Delayed several days by stormy conditions in the Gulf of Mexico, the effects of Hurricane Elsa thankfully waned enough for NASA and SpaceX to proceed with the second autonomous undocking of a Cargo Dragon on July 8th. Originally scheduled on Tuesday, Dragon’s flawless Thursday departure leaves the spacecraft on track to reenter Earth’s atmosphere and splash down off of Florida’s West Coast in the Gulf of Mexico around 11:29 pm EDT (UTC-4) on Friday, July 9th.

Thanks to SpaceX’s growing expertise with Dragon 2 recovery operations and the CRS-22 mission’s preferred recovery location, science experiments among the more than two tons (~4400 lb) of cargo returning to Earth could be in the hands of their respective scientists mere hours after splashdown.

SpaceX Dragon and payload fairing recovery vessel GO Searcher departed its Port Canaveral berth on July 5th and ultimately rerouted to Tampa Bay after weather delays were confirmed. The ship was able to leave its temporary haven on July 8th and should arrive at the recovery zone around 100-150 km south of Tallahassee, Florida hours before Dragon’s planned reentry.

SpaceX’s first upgraded Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft was safely recovered on January 13th, 2021. (SpaceX)

CRS-22’s reentry, descent, and splashdown is set to occur a few days shy of six months after Cargo Dragon 2’s first successful recovery, which was completed on January 13th. Assuming that CRS-22 ultimately marks SpaceX’s 24th consecutively successful orbital spacecraft recovery, the company’s next Dragon launch – CRS-23 – is scheduled to lift off as early as August 18th, 2021, carrying another wealth of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

Cargo Dragon 2’s third launch is expected to occur just one week after Northrop Grumman’s (formerly Orbital ATK) 16th expendable Cygnus resupply mission, which is set to lift off on an Antares rocket no earlier than (NET) August 10th. Cygnus’ NG-16 mission is itself scheduled to launch just 11 days after Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule is set to attempt its second uncrewed mission to the ISS on July 30th. Deemed an Orbital Flight Test, OFT-1 almost ended in catastrophe twice in the handful of hours Starliner was aloft in December 2019. A variety major software bugs and development failures ultimately caused an abort almost the second the spacecraft deployed from ULA’s Atlas V rocket.

In September, a flight-proven SpaceX Crew Dragon is expected to support the world’s first fully private crewed launch to orbit, carrying four passengers as part of billionaire Jared Isaacman’s Inspiration4 mission. As early as late October, SpaceX could launch another four astronauts on Crew-4, the company’s fourth operational space station ferry mission for NASA. Finally, another Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft is scheduled to fly on CRS-24 in December 2021 – the seventh Dragon launch in 12 months if schedules hold.

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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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SpaceX aces fourth Dragon launch in six months

SpaceX has successfully completed its fourth Dragon spacecraft launch in six months, continuing an unprecedented cadence of missions carrying crew and cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

Sporting a new booster (B1067) and Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft (likely C209), SpaceX’s two-stage, 70-meter (~230 ft) Falcon 9 rocket lifted off without issue on the first try. SpaceX’s second upgraded Cargo Dragon deployed from the rocket’s upper stage around 12 minutes after launch, verified the health of its 12 Draco maneuvering thrusters, and opened its nosecone to uncover its docking port and four more “bulkhead” thrusters.

Falcon 9 B1067 aced its first launch and landing. The booster will fly four astronauts next. (SpaceX)
CRS-22 Cargo Dragon 2 is now on its way to the ISS. (SpaceX)

Those four nose thrusters are used for the long-duration orbit raising and phasing burns needed to rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station and safely return to Earth one or several months later. SpaceX’s CRS-22 Cargo Dragon is currently scheduled to dock with the ISS around 5 am EDT (09:00 UTC) on Saturday, June 5th, delivering around 3.3 metric tons (~7300 lb) of cargo.

More than a third of that upmass is taken up by the first of six new ISS Roll-Out Solar Arrays (iROSAs) that will alleviate the gradual deterioration of the station’s current solar array power production capabilities. Ultimately, with all six installed, NASA says ISS power production will be boosted by 20-30%. All iROSAs will fly in pairs as unpressurized payloads in Cargo Dragon’s trunk. Individually, each 20-kilowatt ‘wing’ weighs 690 kg (~1520 lb).

(Richard Angle)
Ascent. (Richard Angle)

The next two pairs will fly on CRS-25 and CRS-26, both scheduled to launch in 2022. Of note, CRS-22 is SpaceX’s fourth Dragon launch in a little over six months – equivalent to completing more than 15% of all Dragon launches in less than 5% of the time since the spacecraft first flew. While unusual and partially brought on by secondary Commercial Crew provider Boeing’s extensive delays, SpaceX appears to be on track to maintain an average Dragon launch cadence not far off from this six-month peak.

In fact, as long as several missions remain on schedule, SpaceX could complete another four – or even five – Dragon launches around the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022. Up next, SpaceX is scheduled to reuse an upgraded Cargo Dragon for the first time as part of CRS-23 in August 2021. Inspiration4, Crew Dragon’s inaugural private launch, is expected to launch as early as September. Crew-3 will send four more NASA and ESA astronauts to the ISS as early as October, followed by CRS-24 in December. Finally, Axiom Space’s first four private astronauts will ride Dragon to the ISS as early as January 2021.

Altogether, SpaceX’s next mission to the ISS is on track to kick off five Dragon launches in five months, ultimately marking 12 Dragon launches in 24 months if things go according to plan.

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SpaceX’s second upgraded Dragon set to launch new solar arrays to the ISS

An all-new Falcon 9 rocket and upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft have rolled out to Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A (Pad 39A) ahead of SpaceX’s second CRS2 space station resupply launch for NASA.

Scheduled to lift off no earlier than (NET) 1:29 pm EDT (17:29 UTC) on Thursday, June 3rd, the mission – known as CRS-22 – will be the first of up to four Falcon 9 launches scheduled this month. Cargo Dragon 2 debuted in December 2020 as part of CRS-21 and returned to Earth five weeks later, marking SpaceX’s third near-flawless inaugural launch of a new spacecraft. Heavily based on Crew Dragon, which first flew in March 2019, Cargo Dragon 2 is nevertheless significantly modified to optimize it for its exclusively cargo-oriented role.

That includes the removal of internal components, windows, and – most notably – Crew Dragon’s system of SuperDraco abort thrusters to make more room and free up more mass for non-astronaut cargo.

Atop new Falcon 9 booster B1067, CRS-22 will lift off with more than 3300 kg (7300 lb) of cargo in tow. Aside from the usual science equipment, space suit parts, and consumables, CRS-22 will also carry part of a significant new upgrade planned for the International Space Station’s (ISS) basic power generation capabilities. Known as ISS Roll Out Solar Arrays, the new space station solar arrays are a direct follow-on to an experiment -ROSA – launched to the ISS on another Cargo Dragon in 2017.

ROSA was successfully tested in 2017. (NASA)

As the name implies, unlike virtually all other modern spacecraft solar arrays, which generally unfold as a number of flat panels, ROSA is flexible and deploys by unrolling. In theory, that allows for superior packing density to fit more power generation capacity in any given space-constrained launch. Indeed, many modern flagship communications satellites have begun to utilize roll-out solar arrays to expand their power supplies.

At the scale of the new ISS arrays, ROSA’s benefits are less clear, but improvements in solar cell efficiency still mean that six smaller iROSA arrays will be comparable to the ISS’ eight current solar wings. Somewhat embarrassingly, though, those new iROSA arrays will produce less power and be heavier than the early-2000s wings they’re meant to (partially) replace.

The first of at least three new iROSA solar arrays set to head to the ISS on Dragon is pictured in the CRS-22 spacecraft’s trunk. (SpaceX)
NASA seemingly intends to install six iROSAs in an agonizingly asymmetric configuration. (NASA)

While massive in their deployed state, each of the original eight ISS solar wings weigh approximately 1100 kg (2400 lb) and initially generated up to 31 kilowatts of power. Each iROSA will weigh almost 1400 kg (~3100 lb) at liftoff and generate a maximum of 20 kW. Those new solar arrays will partially interfere with the station’s older arrays but both sets will continue to work, ultimately improving ISS power generation capabilities by 20-30%.

All six arrays will launch on Cargo Dragon missions CRS-22, CRS-25, and CRS-26, likely completing the ISS solar upgrade sometime in Q4 2022. iROSA will be one of the heaviest unpressurized payloads ever launched as cargo on a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.

The post SpaceX’s second upgraded Dragon set to launch new solar arrays to the ISS appeared first on TESLARATI.

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aerospace astronomy Blue Origin Dynetics Human Landing System nasa spacex

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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