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Cost overruns at Lockheed Martin threaten smallsat Lunar Trailblazer orbiter

NASA is now doing a review to decide if it will kill a smallsat lunar orbiter project, dubbed Lunar Trailblazer, due to cost overruns at Lockheed Martin.

Bethany Ehlmann, principal investigator for Lunar Trailblazer at Caltech, said in a presentation at LEAG Aug. 24 that Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft subcontractor, notified NASA of “recent and projected future overruns” on the project in June. Neither Ehlmann, NASA nor Lockheed Martin quantified those overruns.

“As we brought this mission from paper to life, the engineering and design efforts exceeded our original estimate,” Lockheed Martin said in a statement to SpaceNews Aug. 25. “Our Lockheed Martin team continues to implement cutting edge digital production tools and seek out operational efficiencies to minimize any extra cost incurred over Lunar Trailblazer’s development.”

The wording in this Lockheed Martin statement is meaningless blather, with no specific details. The bottom line however is this: Lunar Trailblazer was meant to demonstrate that it was possible to build a small low-cost science probe, in this case a lunar orbiter, and do it for no more than $55 million. Apparently, Lockheed Martin didn’t take that objective seriously. Instead, it thought it could do what it has done for decades — as have all the old big space contractors — pay no attention to cost, go overbudget, and then have NASA pick up the slack. It appears NASA might not do it this time.

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On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

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"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • pzatchok

    So Lockheed can not build a small sat for less than it would take Space-X to launch it.

    NASA can pay for the launch and let some university build it for almost free. And it would still be cheaper than letting Lockheed do anything with the project.

  • Jerry Greenwood

    I see the results of this development and manufacturing experiment to be a success. The goal was to determine if this could be completed under $55 million and Lockheed has produced an answer. It can not be done (at least by Lockheed for under $55 million).
    I hope NASA considers this lesson in future contract awards.

  • Edward

    From the article:

    “We’re doing something hard, which is the delivery of science data that are of the quality of a Discovery or New Frontiers mission,” Ehlmann said at the LEAG meeting, referring to two classes of larger planetary science missions, “at almost an order of magnitude lower cost.”

    It could be that everyone is being a little hard on this vendor. It is not the first one to have difficulty with this Lunar Trailblazer mission:

    Lockheed Martin, though, was not the original spacecraft provider. When NASA selected Lunar Trailblazer in 2019, Ball Aerospace was listed as the spacecraft subcontractor. In July 2020, though, the mission elected to go with Lockheed Martin instead “after the original spacecraft partner ran into design and cost challenges.”

    I think that if NASA were serious about the $55 million price, it would have gone with a fixed-price contract instead. This would have put cost-control pressure on the vendors from the beginning.

    Here is something to think about: Should NASA cancel this project then it would put vendors on notice that NASA is no longer willing to go with the low-cost bidder who lowballs the bid then goes over budget. On the other hand, would vendors underbid anyway just to get the contract and then expect the cancellation after receiving quite a bit of revenue? On the third hand (the gripping hand), would fixed price bids have been quite a bit higher than $55 million in order to cover these kinds of problems?

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