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Starship lunar lander
NASA said it picked SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander, and only SpaceX, becaused on both the quality of the proposals it received and the limited funding available. (credit: SpaceX)

All in on Starship

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History will show that SpaceX won two contracts last week to land spacecraft on the Moon, but few may remember the first. On Tuesday, Astrobotic announced it selected SpaceX to launch its Griffin lunar lander in 2023. That lander will carry to the south pole of the Moon NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to search for deposits of water ice there. NASA awarded Astrobotic a contract worth nearly $200 million last year to launch VIPER through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program; Astrobotic did not disclose the terms of its contract with SpaceX, although the Falcon Heavy has a list price of $90 million.

“Competition—having multiple suppliers for us—is an extremely important principle,” Kirasich said in February.

But the contract to land Griffin and VIPER was overshadowed three days later by a much bigger contract to land a much bigger spacecraft. On Friday, NASA announced it selected SpaceX—and only SpaceX¬¨—for the next phase of its Human Landing System (HLS) program. That “Option A” award will provide $2.9 billion to SpaceX to develop a lunar lander version of its Starship vehicle and fly an uncrewed test flight, followed by a crewed mission that is intended to carry the first astronauts to the surface of the Moon since Apollo 17.

The announcement was surprising in several respects. One was the timing. While the agency had been expected to make an announcement about the HLS program by the end of the month—having previously extended the existing contracts by two months from the end of February—the agency provided only a few hours’ notice, in the form of a comment by acting administrator Steve Jurczyk at the end of a media event at the Kennedy Space Center to welcome the astronauts who will be launching on the Crew-2 mission on April 22. The formal media advisory of a media teleconference at 4 pm EDT came shortly after 2 pm EDT. By contrast, for the HLS announcements last year NASA provided a notice two days, rather than two hours, in advance.

Another surprising aspect was that SpaceX was a winner. In the HLS “base period” awards last year, SpaceX got the smallest award: $135 million, compared to the $567 million that the “National Team” led by Blue Origin won and the $253 million that a team led by Dynetics got for more conventional lander concepts. A NASA source selection statement about those HLS awards praised SpaceX for offering a vehicle that could serve both initial landings and more advanced later missions. However, it raised doubts about the company’s ability to remain on schedule and a complex concept of operations that requires multiple missions to fuel Starship in Earth orbit before going to the Moon (see “Can NASA land humans on the Moon by 2024?”, The Space Review, May 18, 2020.)

Most surprising, though, was that NASA picked only one company. Throughout the last year, NASA emphasized the importance of maintaining competition, citing the lessons learned from the commercial crew program that awarded contracts to both Boeing and SpaceX. NASA said it would make “up to two” Option A awards, and many expected the agency to pick two companies. “Competition—having multiple suppliers for us—is an extremely important principle,” Mark Kirasich, director of the advanced exploration systems division at NASA, said in February at the 47th Spaceport Summit.

“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,” Lueders wrote in the source selection statement.

But the desire to support two companies ran into fiscal realities. NASA sought $3.3 billion for the HLS program in 2021, but Congress provided just $850 million. “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 the teleconference Friday.

Lueders was far blunter in the formal source selection statement. “While it remains the Agency’s desire to preserve a competitive environment at this stage of the HLS Program, 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,” she wrote.

SpaceX offered the lowest price of the three bidders (NASA’s press release put the contract value at $2.89 billion, while the source selection statement said SpaceX bid $2,941,394,557.) NASA entered into negotiations with SpaceX, which resulted in no change to that price but instead “updated milestone payment phasing that fits within NASA’s current budget.” Blue Origin bid an unspecified but “significantly higher” price, while Dynetics’ bid was “significantly higher” than Blue Origin.

It helped NASA that SpaceX also offered the strongest proposal outside of price. SpaceX received an “Acceptable” technical rating, in the middle of the adjectival scale used for judging the proposals. Blue Origin also received an “Acceptable” technical rating while Dynetics was one notch lower, at “Marginal.” A separate management rating gave SpaceX the highest score, “Outstanding,” while both Blue Origin and Dynetics received “Very Good,” one level down.

In the source selection statement, Lueders praised SpaceX for the scale and features of the Starship lander, offering capabilities that meet NASA’s needs not just for initial missions but for the later “sustainable” phase of the Artemis program that will require delivery of heavier cargos and longer stays. “The collective effect of these attributes is that SpaceX’s initial lander design will largely obviate the need for additional re-design and development work (and appurtenant Government funding) in order to evolve this initial capability into a more sustainable capability,” she wrote.

However, NASA still noted issues from last year’s competition, such as the complexity of operations. “SpaceX’s mission depends upon an operations approach of unprecedented pace, scale, and synchronized movement of the vehicles in its architecture,” she wrote, but added the risks associated with them are at least partially offset by the fact that those refueling operations will take place in Earth orbit, where they are less complex than around the Moon.

SpaceX also got credit for linking the Starship lunar lander with its broader Starship space transportation program. “This approach, which does not draw illusory distinctions between HLS activities and other efforts utilizing the common Starship architecture, is critical because SpaceX’s HLS effort and its development of commercial spaceflight capabilities are inextricably intertwined,” Lueders wrote. SpaceX, she added will fund “over half of the development and test activities” for its HLS development because those linkages.

Jurczyk, at the briefing, mentioned that NASA’s goal was to return humans to the lunar surface “as quickly and safely as possible.” He also said, though, that the agency is in the middle of a broad review of the overall Artemis program, including budgets and schedules.

Blue Origin, which got the same technical score as SpaceX, won praise for its lander’s “comprehensive approach to aborts and contingencies.” But the company was dinged for “significant development and schedule risks” for the propulsion systems its landers will use: Blue Origin’s BE-7 engine for the transfer and descent stages and a separate hypergolic engine for the ascent stage. The lander’s communications systems also had problems. “I am troubled by the risks this aspect of Blue Origin’s proposal creates to the crew and to the mission overall,” Lueders wrote when discussing those communications systems.

The lander, NASA found, would require significant work to be scaled up for later sustainable missions. “Blue Origin’s two architectures are substantially different from one another,” she wrote, including a descent stage that “requires a complete structural redesign” for later missions to accommodate a heavier ascent stage.

The proposal, perhaps most embarrassingly, was effectively disqualified because it included two cases of advance payments not allowed under the solicitation. Those payments “render Blue Origin’s proposal ineligible for award without the Government engaging in discussions or negotiations with Blue Origin, either of which would provide an opportunity for it to submit a compliant revised proposal.”

That could have been corrected had NASA entered into negotiations for a best-and-final offer, as it did with SpaceX. “However, given NASA’s current and projected HLS budgets, it is my assessment that such negotiations with Blue Origin, if opened, would not be in good faith,” Lueders concluded. “After accounting for a contract award to SpaceX, the amount of remaining available funding is so insubstantial that, in my opinion, NASA cannot reasonably ask Blue Origin to lower its price for the scope of work it has proposed to a figure that would potentially enable NASA to afford making a contract award to Blue Origin.”

Dynetics fared even worse. Besides having the highest price, it had the lowest technical score, had suffered issues such as its lander having a negative mass margin—that is, it weighed too much. That negative mass margin “is disconcerting insofar as it calls into question the feasibility of Dynetics’ mission architecture and its ability to successfully close its mission as proposed,” Lueders wrote, who also found issue with an “unrealistic” development schedule and low level of technical maturity.

NASA glossed over those issues at the briefing. “We got three really great proposals,” Lueders said, and assessed them for “the best value to the government.”

Even before the selection of SpaceX, NASA had been hinting it would have problems selecting two companies for HLS awards because of its limited budget. “Our big challenge is, how do we continue to make sure that we have competition for when we’re doing our services awards for the landers?” Lueders asked during the same Spaceport Summit session Kirasich spoke at. “Competition is very important.”

The solution, it appears, is to accelerate the next phase of the HLS program, where NASA purchases landing services from companies. “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 competition will be a full and open competition, which means Blue Origin and Dynetics, as well as anyone else offering a crewed lunar lander, can compete. “We’re putting together our sets of requirements now for our sustaining lander system, and starting to pull together the strategy for that,” Lueders said.

However, those companies will be at a disadvantage to SpaceX, which will have the benefit of nearly $3 billion in NASA funding to assist its lander, which already was ahead of those other companies from a technical standpoint. Blue Origin, with the financial backing of Jeff Bezos, could in theory self-fund its continued development, but it’s not clear partners like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman will remain. Dynetics may have even greater problems unless its corporate parent, Leidos, decides to invest more money.

Another area of uncertainty is the schedule. Lueders said the goal is to have those sustainable landing services up and running by the end of the decade, which requires contracts to be in place by 2024 or 2025. Thus, the next few years will be critical to NASA’s efforts to ensure competition in the lunar lander program.

That uncertainty extends to the first crewed landing that is part of SpaceX’s new contract. Jurczyk, at the briefing, mentioned that NASA’s goal was to return humans to the lunar surface “as quickly and safely as possible.” He also said, though, that the agency is in the middle of a broad review of the overall Artemis program, including budgets and schedules.

“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.”

Aderholt questioned the choice of SpaceX, citing “very high” prices it charged on recent Air Force and NASA launch contracts and “recent tests of the Starship program as reported in the news.”

SpaceX didn’t comment on its own schedules, which tend, as the company itself has acknowledged, to be aspirational. The company was curiously excluded from the NASA briefing, and issued only a tweet saying it was “humbled” to be picked for the HLS award.

The HLS award further cements SpaceX as a major player in the Artemis program. Earlier this year, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to launch the first two elements of the lunar Gateway on the Falcon Heavy. The company also has a contract to provide cargo resupply services for the Gateway, but NASA officials acknowledged earlier this month that they had not yet formally started that contract, a year after its award, as it performs that overall review of Artemis.

SpaceX stands in contrast to the more conventional approach used for the foundations of the Artemis program, the Space Launch System and Orion. Despite NASA’s growing embrace of SpaceX’s technologies and approaches, SLS and Orion remain on the critical path for Artemis, even if the thought of the Orion spacecraft docking with the far larger Starship lunar lander is, well, amusing. When a reporter asked how Starship would be integrated with SLS/Orion, there was nearly a ten-second pause before HLS program manager Lisa Watson-Morgan explained the technical aspects of Orion docking directly with the Starship lander, or both docking with the Gateway.

The decision to go with SpaceX, though, may face some political headwinds. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chair of the House Science Committee, criticized NASA for making an HLS award “despite the obvious need for a re-baselining of NASA’s lunar exploration program, which has no realistic chance of returning US astronauts to the Moon by 2024.” She had previously criticized NASA for using a public-private partnership approach for HLS rather than a more conventional contract.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) specifically questioned the choice of SpaceX, citing “very high” prices it charged on recent Air Force and NASA launch contracts and “recent tests of the Starship program as reported in the news,” a reference to the four recent Starship test flights that all resulted in the loss of vehicle. (A fifth test flight could take place later this week.)

Meanwhile, NASA is getting a new administrator in the coming weeks with the anticipated Senate confirmation of Bill Nelson, who will testify Wednesday before the Senate Commerce Committee that he once served on. Asked if NASA expected to revisit the HLS awards based on that change in leadership, Jurczyk responded there were “no plans to change our architecture and our concept of operations” for HLS. “We have no intent to revisit the selection at all.”

In some respects, NASA’s Artemis program is now more dependent on SpaceX than anyone else. SpaceX will be the sole supplier of crewed landing services for several years, if and when another company can develop its own lander with little or no assistance from NASA. And while Artemis plans to use SLS and Orion, the emergence of the Starship launch system could provide an alternative.

All that, though, assumes that Starship will actually work. It’s not just the future of SpaceX riding on that vehicle, it’s now also the future of human space exploration at NASA.

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