Artemis: The Good, the Bad and the Well, Yeah

Artist concept of the SpaceX Starship on the surface of the Moon. (Credits: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and top officials provided an update on the Artemis program on Tuesday, delivering the not unexpected news that the space agency will not meet its deadline of landing a man and the first woman of color at the south pole of the moon in 2024. Instead, the landing will be delayed until at least 2025.

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Blue Origin Says: SpaceX’s Starship Lander Too Complex & Risky

Credit: Blue Origin

In the wake of losing its protest over NASA’s decision to award the Human Landing System contract to SpaceX, Blue Origin has released an information graphic calling the Starship system “immensely complex & high risk.”

The comparison on the right shows the distance from the surface to the hatches of the two vehicles. The text from the infographic is reproduced below.

LUNAR STARSHIP: IMMENSELY COMPLEX & HIGH RISK

There are an unprecedented number of technologies, developments, and operations that have never been done before for Starship to land on the Moon. This includes developing Super Heavy – not only the largest launch vehicle stage ever produced, but one that has to be reusable – and Starship – the first ever reusable second stage. Then, the two systems must work together. A launch site in Boca Chica, Texas that has never conducted an orbital launch must demonstrate the ability to do so 7-11 times within 1-week increments. And cryogenic fluid transfer – a process that has also never been done – must work to refuel up to 100 MT of propellants from Starship to Starship that also requires development of a new tanker Starship variant. Finally, for just a single Starship lunar landing, this must all be done more than 10 times flawlessly. This is so that Starship can get to the surface and back with a single-stage ascent/descent vehicle, without dissimilar redundancy in abort engines.

NATIONAL TEAM: SAFE, LOW-RISK, FAST

The National Team’s architecture only requires three launches and is flexible to fly on multiple existing launch vehicles with far fewer in-space rendezvouses. Further, the system is entirely built on heritage systems and proven technologies that are flying today.

  • FROM NASA SOURCE SELECTION STATEMENT: “While I find the positive aspects of SpaceX’s technical approach to be notably thoughtful and meritorious, these aspects are, however, tempered by its complexity and relatively high-risk nature… I acknowledge the immense complexity and heightened risk associated with the very high number of events necessary to execute the front end of SpaceX’s mission, and this complexity largely translates into increased risk of operational schedule delays.”

GAO Denies Human Landing System Protests by Blue Origin & Dynetics, Affirms SpaceX Award

Artist concept of the SpaceX Starship on the surface of the Moon. (Credits: SpaceX)

WASHINGTON (GAO PR) — On Friday, July 30, 2021, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) denied protests filed by Blue Origin Federation, LLC, of South Kent, Washington, and Dynetics, Inc. – A Leidos Company, of Huntsville, Alabama.  The protesters challenged their non-selection for awards and the award of optional contract line item numbers to Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), of Hawthorne, California, under Option A to Appendix H of Broad Agency Announcement (the announcement) No. NNH19ZCQ001K. Broad Agency Announcements typically provide for the acquisition of basic and applied research for new and creative research or development solutions to scientific and engineering problems. The rules for these procurements are not the same as those for standard competitive federal procurements, as agencies generally enjoy broader discretion in selecting the proposals most suitable to meeting their research and development needs when utilizing broad agency announcement procedures.  The announcement was issued by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for a demonstration mission for a human landing system for lunar exploration.  

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Blue Origin Challenges NASA Human Lunar Landing System Award to SpaceX

Artist concept of the Blue Origin National Team crewed lander on the surface of the Moon. (Credits: Blue Origin)

The New York Times reports that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has challenged NASA’s decision to award a $2.9 billion contract to Elon Musk’s SpaceX to develop the Human Landing System designed to return astronauts to the moon as part of the space agency’s Artemis program.

Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said NASA’s decision was based on flawed evaluations of the bids — misjudging advantages of Blue Origin’s proposal and downplaying technical challenges in SpaceX’s. He also said NASA had placed a bigger emphasis on bottom-line cost than it said it would.

“It’s really atypical for NASA to make these kinds of errors,” Mr. Smith said in an interview. “They’re generally quite good at acquisition, especially its flagship missions like returning America to the surface of the moon. We felt that these errors needed to be addressed and remedied.”

He added that in any case, the space agency should have stuck with a desire it had stated many times, of wanting to hand out awards to two companies.

Blue Origin’s National Team included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. Dynetics was the other unsuccessful bidder to submit a proposal.

SpaceX won the contract with a proposal that will use a version of the company’s Starship vehicle, which is currently undergoing testing in Boca Chica, Texas.

The Government Accountability Office will now review the award and render a decision.

Nelson Sails Through Senate Nomination Hearing, Backs NASA Human Landing System Award

Bill Nelson

Former senator Bill Nelson appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee this week turned into a mutual admiration society with legislators and the nominee for NASA administrator exchanging compliments and largely agreeing on the future direction of the space agency.

Barring some unexpected development, the Senate Commerce Committee should easily approve Nelson’s nomination and forward it to the full Senate, where it is likely to pass by a wide margin.

The only fireworks that were expected prior to the hearing involved NASA’s controversial decision last week to award a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX to build the Human Landing System to take astronauts to the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program.

Some legislators have questions the decision to award a single contract instead of making multiple awards to maintain competition and give NASA redundancy. Losing bidders included Dynetics and Blue Origin’s National Team, which included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.

Nelson voiced support for the award and the goal of landing two astronauts at the lunar south pole by the end of 2024.

“I think you may be pleased that we’re gonna see that timetable try to be adhered to, but recognize that with some sobering reality that space is hard,” Nelson said.

The SpaceX contract covers an uncrewed and crewed lunar landings by the company’s Starship vehicle. NASA plans to open another competition for taking crews and cargo to the lunar surface as the agency builds a base on the moon.