NASA awards Maxar Gateway power/communications contract

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The never-ending boondoggle: NASA this week awarded the company Maxar its first official Lunar Gateway contract to develop the power, propulsion, and communications systems for the station.

Interestingly, the contract is structured somewhat similar to the commercial contracts for ISS cargo and crew.

This firm-fixed price award includes an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity portion and carries a maximum total value of $375 million. The contract begins with a 12-month base period of performance and is followed by a 26-month option, a 14-month option and two 12-month options.

Spacecraft design will be completed during the base period, after which the exercise of options will provide for the development, launch, and in-space flight demonstration. The flight demonstration will last as long as one year, during which the spacecraft will be fully owned and operated by Maxar. Following a successful demonstration, NASA will have the option to acquire the spacecraft for use as the first element of the Gateway. NASA is targeting launch of the power and propulsion element on a commercial rocket in late 2022. [emphasis mine]

It is fixed-price, and Maxar will own the design with the ability to sell it to others as well as NASA.

The problem is that Maxar will not be building something that others might want. Their only customer will be NASA, and the design will be focused entirely to NASA’s needs in building their Gateway boondoggle. I am pessimistic anything productive for the future of space travel will come from this.

Moreover, the highlighted words reveal the corrupt nature of this deal. Development could go on forever, and should it do so, do not be surprised if the contract’s fixed price nature gets changed.

Our federal government, including NASA, is very corrupt. They are not interested in the nation’s interest, only the interests of themselves and the contractors they work hand-in-glove with in DC.



  • wodun

    The problem is that Maxar will not be building something that others might want.

    How do we know? And how is this different than commercial cargo, where the government acts as an anchor customer? Most of what NASA does in cislunar space will be the same way. Some of the companies will find other customers and some wont. That is why it is important to take small measured risks. It is like a VC portfolio where losses wont be too great but also provide the opportunity for a lot of gains.

    To help with the pessimism, it is important to note not just the fixed price but also that it has to meet performance milestones and that there are plenty of opportunities to cancel the use of this module over short time frames. This means it is less likely that it will be as open ended as SLS or the ISS.

  • A ‘Bureauacrophy’ (rule by bureaucrats). ‘Bureaolipy’ might be more correct, but sounds clumsy. Surely someone in this forum can do better. Or knows the correct word.

  • Andi

    Burarchy? Bureauarchy?

  • Andi:

    I think you’re on the right track.

  • mike shupp

    Blair —

    MONOPSONY — a marketplace characterized as having a single customer.

  • fred k

    I’m not a fan of the LOPG. It’s inception was not discussed publicly, and it’s very clear that it came out of the smoky, backrooms of Alabama, Boeing and Lockmart. It was originally designed to be a very easy to build and accomplish task where the requirements can be written so that “old space” could keep it’s SLS + Orion + LOPG train very, very slowly rolling along.

    This new piece has morphed slightly. This PPE piece is the bone thrown to the “new space” advocates to get them to go along with the program that funnels 10s of billions down the SLS gravy train.

    If one believes that the PPE design could be a potentially useful product and/or service then it fits with the logic of a fixed price, private/public partnership. Opinions vary if this is a too specific NASA type project, or maybe something more general. It is actually mostly just a copy of an existing satellite bus and propulsion system.

    In my mind, this is a mixed bag:

    * Fixed price.
    * Shorter time frame
    * Cut into manageable pieces
    * Doesn’t require SLS

    * Only one flying … lacking competition
    * Part of the ecosystem that justifies SLS+Orion

  • Edward

    Robert’s statement: “The problem is that Maxar will not be building something that others might want.”

    wodun’s question: “How do we know? And how is this different than commercial cargo, where the government acts as an anchor customer?

    At this time, the three major companies working on orbital habitats are planning their own power and communication systems, so they do not have an immediate need for a commercial module that provides these functions. This is one way that we know that others may not want it, and it is a difference between it and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS). Once these companies start to build multi-module habitats, then there may be a market for a power / communication / propulsion module. If Maxar or another company can create inexpensive modules to provide various functions, then they may be able to sell or lease them to those who own and operate space habitats.

    The problem that I see, and perhaps Robert sees, with this current version of Maxar’s proposal is that it probably will not be inexpensive enough to sell to future habitat owners. It will probably meet stringent NASA requirements that go beyond what commercial operators will need, as it is going to be used in a more demanding environment, outside the Earth’s protective magnetic field.

    Perhaps Maxar can adapt its ((F)LOP) Gateway design for commercial low Earth orbit (LEO) demands, but it almost certainly does not meet current commercial needs.

    I see two other differences between this and CRS. First, Maxar is designing a one-off unit, but CRS was designed for about a dozen launches by each provider to ISS. The CRS companies had great incentive to create low-operational-cost solutions, but Maxar does not have to worry about the cost of building a (non-existent) second unit or of flying a second mission. For Maxar, virtually all the expense will be in the development, but for Orbital ATK (the company during development), Sierra Nevada (newcomer to the program), and SpaceX, the expense — and thus the savings — was largely in the continued operation of a dozen missions. These operational savings are why reusability is so important to both Sierra Nevada and SpaceX.

    Second, when there is a future need for commercial cargo to LEO habitats, the habitat owners probably will not be able to provide their own transportation, but they would still be able to build their own power / communication / propulsion modules.

  • Dick Eagleson

    fred k has it pretty much right. It’s too bad Gateway is being built at all, but at least it has been pared down to just this PPE module and a “hab” module that will amount to a locker room in space where astronauts can change from their lightweight launch and in-transit suits into the sturdier suits required for lunar surface EVA’s.

    Some of Edward’s expressed concerns do not accord with the actual circumstances of this NASA acquisition. Maxar’s proposal is based on its well-established 1300-series GEO comsat bus. Maxar/SSL has built dozens of currently-in-service birds based on this bus. That’s what allowed them to confidently make a very low fixed price bid compared to other potential vendors.

    NASA went with this solution for three main reasons, I think:

    1) Administrator Bridenstine understands that prying more money out of Congress for Artemis is problematical so all its parts have to be acquired as inexpensively as possible. Coverage of this contract award since its announcement has indicated that Maxar’s bid was well below any others received.

    2) Considering that all the PPE has to do is make electricity from sunlight, reach and alter its orbit using ion thrusters and supply communications services, this choice is very low risk as those are all core capabilities any GEO comsat must have. The only real novelty here is the docking mechanism that PPE will need to hook onto the locker room hab module and that, also, requires no design, just systems integration.

    3) Given that Maxar/SSL is used to building GEO comsats for commercial customers – who do not tolerate major delays on the part of their contractors – there was also little if any schedule risk by going this route given the tight schedule margins Artemis certainly will have. In addition, Maxar/SSL’s GEO comsat business is in a bit of a demand slump just now so the company is both well-motivated to meet or even better the agreed schedule and hasn’t anything else to do that would distract it from execution of this contract.

    In short, building Gateway at all is a bad decision, but at least this acquisition is the least bad way to go about acquiring this particular piece of it. It’s good that NASA isn’t continuing to reward legacy contractors with long, dreary records of non-performance.

  • wodun

    I see two other differences between this and CRS. First, Maxar is designing a one-off unit, but CRS was designed for about a dozen launches by each provider to ISS.

    There were supposed to be two providers. I guess they shortened the timeline. But what you mention is a weakness for a lot of lunar proposals.

    CRS had the Falcon 9 Dragon combo and the Antares Cygnus combo. One of those combos is doing better than the other in finding customers other than NASA.

    It is unclear how many companies would participate under all the different proposals. There is a rush being imposed by the administration and space cadet community where companies could be excluded, similar to a competitor to Maxar. Some of the things proposed by the administration are repeatable, but some pieces are still one offs or could possibly go primarily to a single company.

  • Edward

    Dick Eagleson wrote: “Maxar’s proposal is based on its well-established 1300-series GEO comsat bus. Maxar/SSL has built dozens of currently-in-service birds based on this bus. That’s what allowed them to confidently make a very low fixed price bid compared to other potential vendors.

    A geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) satellite bus has a very different mission than a ((F)LOP) Gateway (to Nowhere) power propulsion element (PPE) would have. The GEO bus is designed to continuously point at Earth, revolve around the Earth daily, and carry a payload that relays powerful communications signals with an unobstructed view of the Earth.

    Gateway will have a different orbit. If it is intended to point at the Earth then a locker room will obstruct the view, and when Orion and the Lunar Lander are in place, the view may be more obstructed. If it points elsewhere (a lunar orbit probably wants a different attitude) then different antenna mountings will be needed. In any case, the GEO Earth Deck (the panel facing the Earth on a GEO satellite) contains a lot of equipment that will have to be relocated for Gateway (Earth sensor, star tracker, antennas for control and sending engineering data, etc). No GEO bus that I have seen has much in the way of alternate mount points for equipment.

    Gateway may not hold a continuous attitude relative to Earth, so a steerable antenna or phased array antenna(s) may have to be designed in, items that are unusual on GEO satellites.

    As a communication platform, a GEO bus needs redesign.

    Gateway will have a very different mass, center of mass, and mass moment of inertia than a GEO bus is designed to handle. When I worked at Space Systems/Loral (SSL), they used two primary momentum wheels and a backup. NASA may want more stability when Orion, the Lunar Lander, and any interplanetary spacecraft dock with Gateway, so SSL may need a third momentum wheel in the third axis, and the backup will have to be remounted in a more 3D direction (vector 1,1,1 rather than 1,1,0).

    GEO satellites have different station keeping requirements. For GEO operations, north/south drift are a major problem, due to the out-of-plane lunar and solar gravitational sources, but the specialized thrusters used for this correction may be mounted in the wrong direction for lunar orbit. A lunar orbit has different problems, especially since the large maria contain gravity anomalies (mass concentrations or mascons) that have caused lunar orbiters to veer toward the Moon (Apollo had to account for this phenomenon, despite not understanding it; GRAIL (Ebb and Flow) helped to define it).

    I cannot think of a more inappropriate bus to use for Gateway than a GEO bus, except for almost all other satellite buses. The only appropriate module for such a mission would be Russia’s Zarya propulsion module, in use on the ISS. It was specifically designed for this kind of use. A GEO bus will require adaptation.

    As a propulsion unit, a GEO bus may be desirable because of its large propellant tanks.

    Gateway will have very different power needs. Most of the time it will need little power, so the solar arrays on a GEO bus are probably ideal for this use, so long as spacecraft north is allowed to point north (or south, in a pinch), as in GEO use.

    Come to think of it, a LEO PPE would also have a different mission than for either GEO or Gateway, making Gateway’s PPE less than optimal for the needs and wants of other potential users.

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