NASA expands list of companies certified to bid on lunar launch/payload contracts


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Capitalism in space: NASA today announced that it is expanding the list of companies eligible to bid on lunar launch/payload contracts from 9 to 14.

From the NASA press release:

NASA has added five American companies to the pool of vendors that will be eligible to bid on proposals to provide deliveries to the surface of the Moon through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.

The additions, which increase the list of CLPS participants on contract to 14, expand NASA’s work with U.S. industry to build a strong marketplace to deliver payloads between Earth and the Moon and broaden the network of partnerships that will enable the first woman and next man to set foot on the Moon by 2024 as part of the agency’s Artemis program.

…These five companies, together with nine companies selected in November 2018, now are eligible to bid on launch and delivery services to the lunar surface. [emphasis mine]

The added companies are SpaceX, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems.

I have highlighted the most important word in this press release, which is most interestingly buried to make it as little noticed as possible. The addition of SpaceX to this list and the mention that the program has now added the ability to for the companies to bid on launch contracts means that NASA’s goal here is to create a situation where it can replace SLS with a bidded contract to private industry that will costs far less and can launch frequently and on time, features that SLS is completely incapable of, and SpaceX can provide easily and reliably. This analysis by me is further reinforced in that Boeing, the builder of SLS, was not included in this list, even though only last week that company offered SLS to NASA in a wider array of launch configurations, for exactly this purpose.

If NASA had made this fact too obvious it might upset certain people in Congress (I’m talking to you Richard Shelby R-Alabama) who are wedded to SLS and its wasteful pork spending in their home states and districts.

The fact remains however that eventually SLS is going to go away. The Trump administration appears very wedded to its Artemis program to get back to the Moon by 2024, and it is apparently discovering that to make that landing happen the administration needs better alternatives.

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3 comments

  • Edward

    I am thinking that there is a more important quote from one of NASA’s leaders:

    “Buying rides to the Moon to conduct science investigations and test new technology systems, instead of owning the delivery systems, enables NASA to do much more, sooner and for less cost, while being one of many customers on our commercial partners’ landers,” said Steve Clarke, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

    This is an acknowledgement that the old ways are being phased out in order to be replaced with the commercial space option that was rejected in the 1980s, when Congress needed something for the Space Shuttle to do, because they still thought that the Shuttle was going to launch frequently and for low cost. Congress declared that the Shuttle would launch all U.S. government satellites and be a vehicle for commercial satellites (e.g. communication satellites), and this policy nearly destroyed the other U.S. launch capabilities. Due to the devastation of the U.S. launch market, Ariane and Russia got a lot of U.S. commercial satellite launch contracts that otherwise would have gone to U.S. companies, and eventually China got some U.S. launch contracts in the 1990s.

    Now, in the 2020s, NASA is declaring a heavy reliance on commercial space companies for launch, landing, and even science-collection services. NOAA is beginning to purchase data from commercial satellite companies for weather prediction.

    Several companies are coming into existence to perform services that were not previously thought to be commercially viable, such as debris mitigation. Until recently, space debris removal as an industry was thought infeasible, but now two companies are proposing this service as their business plans:
    https://spacenews.com/astroscale-clearspace-aim-to-make-a-bundle-removing-debris/

    Robert is right. Private enterprise and competition are not only reshaping the global aerospace launch industry but is creating other aerospace industries, too. Despite Congress, NASA is sneaking its way out of the operations mode and is entering the customer mode, relying upon commercial innovations and efficiencies rather than being the be-all end-all of space exploration and usage.

    The best part of all this is that we can see that NASA intends to end its monopsony as other companies find uses for all these commercial space services and products. Not only will it be NASA, but everyone else will be able to “do much more, sooner and for less cost.

  • Wodun

    Its been clear for a while there is a dual track approach. SLS is expensive and will soon be obsolete but it is a small expense in a big federal budget. As long as NASA keeps getting the money for the other development track, things will be ok or as best as could be expected under the constraints of reality.

  • Edward

    Wodun wrote: “SLS is expensive and will soon be obsolete but it is a small expense in a big federal budget.

    Well, that “drop in the bucket” attitude makes the squandering of NASA’s money, skills, talent, and knowledge OK, then. It isn’t as though we could save billions of dollars if we were to stop wasteful spending in the multitude of other areas of government, or that we could be a more prosperous nation if we stopped paying people to not work (welfare) and they produced even more goods and services than we produce now.

    Or, it isn’t as though that squandered funding could have gone to other NASA projects or that some of it would have been spent on Commercial Crew Development in order to get it operational a couple of years ago. What could NASA’s money, skills, talent, and knowledge have been creating had those squandered resources been put to good use?

    Indeed, as soon as Falcon Heavy became operational it was clear that we did not need SLS to put the first woman and the next man on the Moon, as between Falcon Heavy, Falcon 9, other existing and future rockets, Dragon, and Starliner, we have the basic equipment to get to lunar orbit. All we need now is hardware to get us to and from the lunar surface. SLS is now squandering funds that could be used to develop that hardware and to develop lunar habitats for a lunar base.

    That “small expense” represents a lot of lost opportunity.

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