NASA releases draft commercial Gateway resupply plan


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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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2 comments

  • wodun

    If I am reading this correctly, the GLS is for the development of resupply vehicles but not a new launcher? Or could it be like Antares/Cygnus where they do both?

    A demonstration flight to prove design changes isn’t too bad depending on what kind of change triggers this requirement and whether or not the launch vehicles have NASA as their sole customer. SpaceX wouldn’t have a problem doing this but NG would. Is is NASA trying to stifle development or did SpaceX get this included to impede their competitors?

    The MECO podcast has done a good job illuminating the lawfare and regulatory tit for tat between launch providers. Big money and big stakes games here but just shows we still have some corruption that needs dealt with.

    Often times the companies haven’t been awarded the full amount authorized but the $7 billion award has me wondering where my red flags are at. As that is just the maximum award over a certain period of years and an undetermined number of flights, it is tough to tell whether to be cool with it without knowing the per mission award, which I guess we have to wait and see as NASA tailors the awards to the company.

    Something else to look at are the mission durations, 12-18 months. The Trump admin scaled back the size of the Gateway but this points to a flexibility in what Gateway could do in the future. The initial plans for Gateway called for a crewed mission capability of something like six months that could later be expanded to 9-12 (IIRC) as the station expanded. Requiring the resupply vehicles to have a long shelf life opens up a lot of possibilities but it also requires the industry develop technology that will be useful for anything else we want to do in space.

    It is all very interesting and it is good that NASA is finally getting around to giving more detail on what they want to do, still a lot of question though.

  • pzatchok

    Great now they are looking for bids to make the beer delivery to the lunar orbiting gas station.
    A gas station that isn’t even designed yet.

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