Northrop Grumman to build Gateway habitation module


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The boondoggle never dies! NASA has decided it will give a sole source contract to Northrop Grumman to build the minimal habitation module of its Gateway lunar space station, based on that company’s Cygnus unmanned freighter.

NASA is also bypassing a traditional procurement process for the Minimal Habitation Module. Rather than requesting bids from industry, and then evaluating the responses, NASA plans to fast-track a contract with Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, an operating unit of Northrop Grumman formerly known as Orbital ATK.

The pressurized habitation compartment will be docked with the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element in a stable near-rectilinear halo orbit around the moon. NASA announced in May that Maxar Technologies won a contract worth up to $375 million to build the Power and Propulsion Element, which will provide electricity and maneuvering capability for the Gateway station using high-power plasma thrusters, but does not include any pressurized section.

The Gateway is a mini-space station NASA plans to build in an orbit that swings as close as 2,000 miles from the moon about once per week. The Gateway will act as a stopover and safe haven for astronauts heading for the moon’s surface, NASA is designing the mini-station to accommodate myriad scientific experiments and engineering demonstrations required for more ambitious ventures deeper into the solar system, and eventually Mars.

The Trump administration wants to focus on a lunar landing by 2024, and so it forced NASA to reduce its Gateway boondoggle to the minimum necessary to make that lunar landing possible. This module, with the service module that Maxar is building, is that minimum Gateway.

And why do we even need this? Well, it appears that SLS and Orion and the not-yet-built or even designed lunar lander, by themselves, are not capable of getting astronauts to the Moon. A way station is somehow required.

Note also that the contract amount remains a secret, redacted from the NASA paperwork. Note also that NASA “still plans to add more elements to the Gateway, including contributions from international partners, after accomplishing the human landing on the moon.”

In other words, this is a typical Washington swamp buy-in, connived by the big space contractors and NASA to weasel this boondoggle into existence, even though the Trump administration is not interested. By keeping the cost secret at this point, they avoid some bad press and the possibility of political opposition. Their plan is to get the minimal Gateway funded and launched into space, and then demand more money to pay for the whole thing once the project exists.

This is what NASA does routinely, for all its projects. It lies about the initial cost, low balling it, so as to get the politicians to buy in. The result for the past two decades however is that NASA fails to build much of anything, while wasting gobs of taxpayer dollars on non-productive jobs here on Earth.

Do not be surprised if we see the same with Gateway. In fact, I would bet on it.

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5 comments

  • mike shupp

    I think the idea is to push things as far as long as possible, as quickly as possible, to make a 2024 lunar landing inevitable even if Democrats win the 2020 elections.

    Good odds of this, I’d say. None of the Democrat presidential contenders seems to have an interest in spaceflight, and there aren’t any Democratic space proponents with visible stature in DC other than perhaps Lori Garver, So it’d probably be 2022 or 2023 before a new administration would even start speaking about shutting down the SLS-Orion-Gateway scheme.

    Not to say that SOG is especially wonderful. I actually like the idea of returning to the moon in a big way, but I’d prefer a decent sized manned base at the south pole rather than an expensive, fragile, limited capability tin can orbiting the moon.

  • pzatchok

    Think back to the Apollo mission.

    Why not just make a larger Lunar orbiter?
    It could be set up with all the experiments you want for that trip. One of the problems with a permanent Lunar orbiter is it needs resupplied for each mission. The experiments need changed out. The human waste needs removed.

  • Edward

    pzatchok asked: “Think back to the Apollo mission. Why not just make a larger Lunar orbiter?

    The Saturn V was more powerful than anything that we will have for this Moon mission. This is one reason why NASA has broken up the launches of the lander and the manned spacecraft. We do not have the capability to repeat Apollo exactly as it was done, and Orion is about all the manned spacecraft that we can have in the allotted time. There really isn’t enough time, and there certainly isn’t enough budget to do much more.

    Robert,
    This looks like a case of “been there, done that,” as Obama called the objective of the Constellation program. However, the difference between Apollo and Artemis is that Artemis seems to be based upon the Moon as a resource rather than a victory over an enemy. We haven’t been to a Moon with the intention of doing resource mining. Artemis is new.

    Artemis looks more like what We the Public had envisioned for Apollo, as evidenced by much of the science fiction of the time. We thought that Apollo would prove that the Moon was a worthwhile place to go and that Congress and NASA would continue to go there. The goal of early Artemis flights seems to be to find out how to use the water-ice at the lunar south pole. This is a very worthwhile goal, and should help to stimulate commercial space operations. That NASA is now hiring commercial exploration missions is a sign that there will be many commercial space projects in the near future.

    I see this sole-source contract as a good thing. It shows that NASA has a sense of urgency again. It plans to get this done in the time allotted and is looking for ways to do it.

    I am not convinced that Gateway is the correct way to go. It seems to me that a different type of lunar orbit rendezvous would work better. In my version, the lunar lander is sent into lunar orbit on a first rocket, Orion/Dragon/Starliner launches on a second rocket and docks with the lander in lunar orbit, the lander lands, the lander returns to lunar orbit and docks with Orion/Dragon/Starliner, which then returns to Earth. No distraction by or diversion to Gateway is necessary, and we should be able to do it with rockets we have or are developing.

    If SLS (or an equivalent heavy-launch rocket) is not available to propel the two spacecraft to trans-lunar orbit directly after launch then the lunar lander and Orion/Dragon/Starliner could each dock in low Earth orbit with an upper-stage booster launched on an additional rocket (third and fourth rockets). This would be more of an Earth orbit/lunar orbit rendezvous mission, but the necessary techniques are well known and well practiced, so the risks are low.

    These aren’t elegant solutions, but they may be more efficient and less costly than Gateway.

    We have five years in which to develop the lunar lander, to modify anything that needs updating for this mission, to write all the software that is needed to do these tasks, and to perform test flights.

    As commercial space companies develop better rockets (e.g. New Armstrong and Super Heavy), the methods and techniques to land on and return from the Moon will advance to reflect the better hardware.

  • pzatchok

    “I am not convinced that Gateway is the correct way to go. It seems to me that a different type of lunar orbit rendezvous would work better. In my version, the lunar lander is sent into lunar orbit on a first rocket, Orion/Dragon/Starliner launches on a second rocket and docks with the lander in lunar orbit, the lander lands, the lander returns to lunar orbit and docks with Orion/Dragon/Starliner, which then returns to Earth. No distraction by or diversion to Gateway is necessary, and we should be able to do it with rockets we have or are developing. ”

    I fully agree.

    They could even add in a Bigalow module to have a science area and a larger living area for a longer missions.
    Lander+Bigalow+Orion/Dragon/Starliner.

    If they make a re-usable lander they have to make a way to refuel it while in orbit around the Moon.
    Each Bigalow module could have either two triangular solar panels or one rectangular panel.

    The first mission could even leave the Bigalow module and orbiter behind.
    The second could take a 6 way docking collar and another Bigalow module plus enough environmental equipment to handle 6 Bigalow modules.
    The third could send up another Bigalow module as a refueling station and filled with lander fuel.
    And so on, until we have everything we need in orbit and one or two landers.

    All with rockets we have now. Tech we have now. Pretty much with equipment right ‘off the shelf’.

  • Edward

    pzatchok wrote: “The first mission could even leave the Bigalow module and orbiter behind.

    At this point, I just want to get there. Thinking big is for later, when we know more about what we are going to do there.

    As with starting up a company, doing too much too soon can cost too much for too little return. Thinking too big too soon is what killed NASA’s Mars mission a quarter century ago.

    It seems to me that one of the problems with Gateway is that it is thinking too big too soon. Do we need it yet, and if so, do we need it where we plan to put it? I think the first answer is “no” and the second answer is “it will be later rather than sooner before we know where to put it.”

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