Capitalism in space? NASA today released a draft document outlining its plan for having commercial companies provide cargo to its Lunar Gateway station.
NASA is creating the Gateway Logistics Services (GLS) arena that will oversee supply delivery efforts to the lunar outpost. The draft Request For Proposals document, released by NASA last Friday, will form the basis for the formal Request For Proposals that companies will use later this summer to submit their bids for selection as part of the GLS program.
The draft document will be reviewed by commercial industry providers who will then submit feedback for NASA to consider as the agency formalizes the document.
While not official in its entirety, large portions of the document will remain unchanged or only undergo minor tweaks/clarifications at this point. Thus, the draft provides excellent insight into services, pricing, and timelines that commercial companies will have to meet if selected to participate in the GLS offerings. Of note, any company selected to fly GLS missions would receive a guarantee of two missions, minimum, and each awarded contract would not exceed $7 billion (USD). The total number of contracts NASA can award is not constrained via the language in the draft GLS solicitation document.
The reason I question above whether this will be capitalism in space is because of one new rule NASA wants to impose on its commercial vendors:
Unlike the [ISS cargo] contracts which did not carry a “one successful flight” requirement if changes to the launch vehicle were made after initial certification (both the Falcon 9 and the Antares underwent significant design changes after their [cargo] flights began – with some of those changes debuting on [later cargo] flights), the draft GLS language seems to indicate that NASA would seek to prohibit launch vehicle design changes debuting on GLS contract flights.
If the draft language becomes formal, the GLS contracts would require a launch vehicle that undergoes a design change to complete one successful flight of those changes before its next GLS mission is allowed to proceed.
I can see no reason for this rule other than to prevent private companies from making NASA’s own slow development process look bad. Or to put it another way, NASA wants to prevent the U.S. from getting things done fast in space, because that will prevent the agency from stretching out development endlessly, as it routinely does.
The GLS plan does propose one very good change in NASA policy. It proposes to break the SLS monopoly on launching Gateway components. For years NASA has said that only SLS could launch Gateway components, something that is patently absurd. The Trump administration has been pushing against that shortsighted position, and this plan accelerates that push. It will instead allow commercial companies to compete for those launches, which puts more pressure on SLS to deliver or die.
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