NASA suspends Starship lunar lander contract award due to protests

Because of the protests filed by both Blue Origin and Dynetics, NASA has temporarily suspended the contract with SpaceX for using its Starship spaceship for manned lunar landings.

NASA now has told SpaceX to stop work until GAO determines the outcome. A NASA spokesperson provided this statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com this afternoon. “Pursuant to the GAO protests, NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the HLS contract has been suspended until GAO resolves all outstanding litigation related to this procurement.” The issuance of the stop work order was first reported by Space News.

GAO has 100 days — until August 4, 2021 — to make a decision.

The odds are very likely that the GAO will reject both protests, but not certain. Meanwhile expect SpaceX to continue development of Starship regardless, as they already have about $6 billion in private investment capital in the bank for this project.

I also will predict that should GAO accept the protests and force NASA to reopen the bids, neither Blue Origin nor Dynetics will be able to make an offer that matches SpaceX anyway. And if they do win a contract, I predict that SpaceX will still launch and land on the Moon before them, based on their track records versus SpaceX’s.

Dynetics has joined Blue Origin in protesting Starship contract by NASA

Capitalism in space? Dynetics today joined Blue Origin in protesting NASA’s decision to award SpaceX the sole contract for building a manned lunar lander, using its Starship spacecraft.

Though the company’s protest did not going into specifics, it appears that Dynetics main complaint is the decision to not award two companies a contract, as originally planned. Even so, these factors make Dynetics bid quite problematic:

Of the three bidders, Dynetics was the lowest ranked. It had a technical rating of “Marginal,” one step below the “Acceptable” that Blue Origin and SpaceX received. Its Management rating of “Very Good” was the same as Blue Origin but one step below SpaceX’s “Outstanding.”

In the source selection statement, Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the Dynetics lander “suffered from a number of serious drawbacks” that increased risk. The lander was overweight, which at this early stage of development “calls into question the feasibility of Dynetics’ mission architecture and its ability to successfully close its mission as proposed,” she wrote. The evaluation also questioned the maturity of the technology for performing in-space cryogenic fluid transfer required to refuel the lander, as the company planned.

Lueders concluded that “while Dynetics’ proposal does have some meritorious technical and management attributes, it is overall of limited merit and is only somewhat in alignment with the objectives as set forth in this solicitation.” The document only stated that Dynetics’ proposal had a price “significantly higher” than Blue Origin’s proposal, which in turn was significantly higher than SpaceX’s winning bid of $2.89 billion. Blue Origin disclosed in its protest that it bid $5.99 billion. [emphasis mine]

So, Dynetics proposed to build an overweight lander and do it at the highest price. If anything this protest enhances Blue Origin’s protest. It certainly doesn’t do much for Dynetics.

In fact, a good metaphor for the bidding here would be to imagine three vacuum cleaner salesman arriving at your door, all at the same time. One salesman, Mr. Newbie Dynetics, offers you a vacuum cleaner (as yet unbuilt in any form) that as presently designed will only be able to suck in about two-thirds of the dirt on your floor, and demands you pay $800 for it. The second salesman, Jeff “Blue” Origin, says his design (also unbuilt) is far better because they’ve done some successful tests of a tiny handheld prototype, and in addition he’ll only charge you $599 for it.

Neither Newbie or Jeff have any financing, so you will have to foot the entire bill.

The third salesman, Elon Starship, shows up with a full size prototype that while it has some problems, actually functions, and has been tested a number of times already. He also has more than two thirds of his development already financed by others, and only wants to charge you $289.

Who would you pick?

Since I know my readers are neither elected officials nor government officials in Washington and therefore know how to use their brains intelligently, I suspect I know.

We shall soon find out just how smart or dumb those elected officials or government officials in Washington really are.

Dynetics’ manned lunar lander requires multiple launches and in-space refueling

According to company officials, the manned lunar lander being developed by Dynetics — one of three under NASA contract — will require three quick ULA Vulcan launches and in-space refueling before it will be capable of landing humans on the Moon.

Dynetics’ proposed Human Landing System (HLS) depends upon fuel depots and multiple rocket launches to achieve NASA’s goal of landing two astronauts on the moon in 2024, officials said during a webinar earlier this week. “Our lander is unique in that we need lunar fueling to accomplish our mission. In the next couple years, we will take in-space cryogenic propellant refueling technologies from the lab to [technology readiness level] 10 and operational,” said Kathy Laurini, payloads and commercialization lead for Dynetics’ HLS program.

The lander would launch on one Vulcan rocket, with the next two launches bringing the additional fuel.

More details here.

While it is good that this design does not require the long delayed and likely not-ready SLS rocket, it appears to require in-space capabilities that will not be ready by 2024, the Trump administration’s target date for its manned lunar landing. Instead, this design seems more aimed at subsequent operations in later years.

Since Congress has not yet funded the 2024 mission, though both parties seem interested in later manned lunar operations, this design seems cleverly aimed at that reality, designed to encourage long term government funding.

Regardless, everything hangs on the November elections, and who ends up in charge, both in the White House and in Congress. We presently have really have no way of predicting what will happen, until we know those election results.

Funding breakdown for three lunar landing contracts

Capitalism in space: The contracts awarded by NASA yesterday to build manned lunar landers totaled almost a billion dollars, distributed as follows:

  • Blue Origin: $579 million
  • Dynetics: $253 million
  • SpaceX: $135 million

That Blue Origin got the biggest amount might have to do with the bid’s subcontractors, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. This gives these traditional big space partners, who normally rely on these kinds of government contracts and have little ability to make money outside them, some financing. This will also please their political backers in Congress.

For SpaceX, this is the first time they have taken any government money in connection with Starship. It also appears that NASA is going to stay back and generally let SpaceX develop it without undue interference.

NASA contract award for manned lunar landers rejects SLS

Capitalism in space: NASA today announced the award of contracts to three different private companies to develop manned lunar landers for the 2024 Artemis Moon mission, all of which will not use the SLS rocket to get to the Moon.

The press release described the awards as follows:

  • Blue Origin of Kent, Washington, is developing the Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV) – a three-stage lander to be launched on its own New Glenn Rocket System and ULA Vulcan launch system.
  • Dynetics (a Leidos company) of Huntsville, Alabama, is developing the Dynetics Human Landing System (DHLS) – a single structure providing the ascent and descent capabilities that will launch on the ULA Vulcan launch system.
  • SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, is developing the Starship – a fully integrated lander that will use the SpaceX Super Heavy rocket.

All, including NASA and the Trump administration, are aiming to get these landers built and launched by the Trump administration’s 2024 deadline.

The first thing that stands out like a beacon is the exclusion of SLS as the rocket to launch any of these landers. Instead, the aim is to use the cheaper privately built rockets of either SpaceX, ULA, or Blue Origin.

The second thing that stands out is the commitment by SpaceX to use its Super Heavy/Starship rocket, not its Falcon Heavy. This means they are directly telling the world that they expect this rocket to be in operation much sooner than most expect. It also suggests that they hope this rocket will supplant SLS as the main rocket to get to the Moon. The award also means that NASA is agreeable to this.

The third thing that stands out is the exclusion of Boeing, which submitted a bid but did not win. Not only does this exclusion reinforce the sense gotten from an earlier report that NASA was very dissatisfied with Boeing and was thus going to rank it very low in future bidding considerations, it also indicates once again that NASA is seriously looking at other options to SLS. Boeing’s rejected bid was apparently the only one linked to SLS, and was rejected.

In fact, that SLS was not mentioned as the rocket for any of these landers strongly indicates that NASA and the Trump administration is finally abandoning SLS as the rocket to get Americans to the Moon.

Which immediately raises the question: Why the hell are we spending any money building it? It no longer has any purpose at all.