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Starship lunar lander
NASA and SpaceX can move ahead with their HLS contract after a half year of legal delays that NASA said contributed to tis decision to push back the Artemis 3 mission to no earlier than 2025. (credit: SpaceX)

Resetting Artemis

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There are rarely slow weeks at SpaceX, but last week was certainly was not one of them. The company started the week bringing back a Crew Dragon spacecraft from the International Space Station with four astronauts on board who spent more than six months in space. Less than 48 hours after that Crew Dragon splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, another Crew Dragon launched on a Falcon 9 from the Kennedy Space Center, delivering a new group of four astronauts to the station within 24 hours of liftoff. Early Saturday, a Falcon 9 lifted off from a nearby pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, placing 53 Starlink satellites in orbit. And, amid all that activity in Florida, the company performed a brief static fire of the six Raptor engines in its first orbital Starship vehicle at Boca Chica, Texas, another step towards a launch some time next year.

“Our teams need time to speak now with SpaceX about the Human Landing System. We’ve lost nearly seven months in litigation that likely has pushed the first human landing to no earlier than 2025,” Nelson said.

The company also caught a break last week: it’s no longer on the hook to deliver a lunar lander version of Starship for NASA’s Artemis program in 2024. In a briefing with reporters last Tuesday, NASA leadership formally acknowledged what many had long suspected: the goal set by the Trump Administration in early 2019 of landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024 was no longer viable. Instead, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said, the new goal was no earlier than 2025.

The obvious source of the delay was the litigation regarding NASA’s selection of only SpaceX for a Human Landing System (HLS) award in April. The other two bidders, Blue Origin and Dynetics, protested that decision to the Government Accountability Office, but the GAO rejected their protests in late July (see “Relaunching a lunar lander program”, The Space Review, August 2, 2021.)

Dynetics accepted that decision, but Blue Origin did not. It filed a lawsuit in the Court of Federal Claims, which handles appeals of GAO protests. The complaint was initially sealed, but several weeks later the court released a redacted version of it, showing that Blue Origin focused on a claim that NASA gave unfair consideration of SpaceX’s proposal compared to the other bidders.

That specifically had to do with a requirement for flight readiness reviews, or FRRs, before each launch. Blue Origin alleged that SpaceX did not include FRRs before each “tanker” Starship launch, carrying propellant that would fuel the lander Starship. (Up to 14 such launches would be required, according to NASA.) The agency, in later negotiations with SpaceX, did require an FRR before each type of Starship launch, but that also failed to meet the requirements of the solicitation, according to Blue Origin.

“We stand by our position that NASA selected a proposal that was not in compliance with the solicitation. There’s serious safety issues around that, and that waiver of material requirements prejudiced us and Dynetics,” Megan Mitchell, vice president of government relations at Blue Origin, said in an interview in September, while the case was ongoing.

The company added in its complaint that, had it known NASA would waive the FRR requirement, “Blue Origin would have engineered and proposed an entirely different architecture with corresponding differences in technical, management, and price ratings.” It didn’t elaborate on those changes.

The Court of Federal Claims apparently disagreed. In a one-page statement November 4, Judge Richard A. Hertling granted a motion by the federal government, the defendant in the case, to dismiss the case. The decision remains under seal, but the judge asked the parties to submit requests for redactions for a future public version of the decision.

Blue Origin could have appealed the decision, but elected not to do so. “Not the decision we wanted, but we respect the court’s judgment, and wish full success for NASA and SpaceX on the contract,” Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos tweeted hours after the decision.

“Prior to fiscal year ’22, previous Congresses did not appropriate enough dollars for the Human Landing System,” Nelson said. “The Trump Administration’s target of a 2024 human landing was not grounded in technical feasibility.

That set the stage for NASA to finally move ahead on its HLS award to SpaceX, after work was suspended first because of the GAO protest and, later, the lawsuit. In a call with reporters last week, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said he talked the day after the court decision with SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell about the HLS award for the first time.

But that gap has consequence, Nelson argued. “Our teams need time to speak now with SpaceX about the Human Landing System. We’ve lost nearly seven months in litigation that likely has pushed the first human landing to no earlier than 2025.”

That slip was not surprising given the widespread skepticism that, even if HLS had started on time, that all the elements needed for a human lunar landing would be ready before then end of 2024. The official rejection of the 2024 goal, set by the Trump Administration in March 2019, was nonetheless significant.

Yet, Nelson didn’t exactly throw Blue Origin under the bus as the sole cause of the schedule slip. Other factors, he argued, played a role in slipping the schedule, including those nagging general doubts about the feasibility of a 2024 landing.

“Prior to fiscal year ’22, previous Congresses did not appropriate enough dollars for the Human Landing System,” he said; for fiscal year 2021 NASA got about one-quarter of the $3.4 billion it requested for HLS. “The Trump Administration’s target of a 2024 human landing was not grounded in technical feasibility.” (Nelson said that NASA, which had so far been unsuccessful in securing major funding increases for lunar lander development to support a second provider, would seek “a significant increase in funding” for those efforts in its fiscal year 2023 budget request next year.)

The delay of Artemis 3 to at least 2025 was part of a broader shift in schedules for the program. Last month, agency officials said they were now targeting no earlier than February 12, 2022, for the launch of Artemis 1, the first flight of the Space Launch System that will send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft into orbit around the Moon before returning to Earth. NASA had, for much of the year, been holding onto a 2021 launch of Artemis 1, but finally acknowledged that the launch would slip. The agency has two week launch windows for Artemis 1 not just in February but also March and April if there are further delays.

Artemis 2, the first crewed SLS/Orion flight, is also slipping. At the briefing last week, Nelson announced that Artemis 2 will now fly as late as May 2024, versus a 2023 launch that had been the target for the mission. Artemis 2 could fly no sooner than about 21 months after Artemis 1 because of the need to reuse avionics from the Orion on Artemis 1 for the Orion flying Artemis 2.

Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, said there were several reasons for the delay. One is impacts caused by the pandemic, including its effects on the workforce as well as on the supply chain for the program. He also cited damage at the Michoud Assembly Building in New Orleans from storms that caused water to get inside and damage hardware. “When you add it all up,” he said, “that’s how it all moved out.”

Another surprise from the briefing last week was a cost increase in Orion. Nelson announced that the program now had a total cost, though Artemis 2, of $9.3 billion, an increase of nearly 40% from the previous estimate of $6.7 billion.

Free blamed the increase on several requirements changes. Those changes included a test of proximity operations on Artemis 2 that is needed to prepare for docking of Orion with the lunar lander on Artemis 3. Pandemic-related costs also played a factor, he added.

NASA’s inspector general concluded the agency “will exceed its current timetable for landing humans on the Moon in late 2024 by several years.”

The reset of the Artemis program with delayed launch dates may not be the final word. Early Monday, NASA’s Office of Inspector General released its assessment of the Artemis program. Some of its assessments had been overtaken by events: Artemis 1 was no longer planned for November 2021, as the report stated, and the 2024 date for Artemis 3 has slipped.

However, the report was more skeptical than even NASA’s revised dates. It projected an Artemis 1 launch in the spring of 2022 or “with a higher probability of launch—in our estimation—by summer 2022,” it stated.

It was also skeptical that a human-rated lunar lander, could be developed on an accelerated timeframe that NASA and SpaceX believe, independent of the effects of the Blue Origin protest and lawsuit. Based on the historical record of developing crewed vehicles, it projected far longer delays than what NASA announced last week, also incorporating delays in the development of spacesuits the moonwalking astronauts would wear.

“Given the time needed to develop and fully test the HLS and new spacesuits,” the report concluded, “we project NASA will exceed its current timetable for landing humans on the Moon in late 2024 by several years.”

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