Spanish high-altitude balloon company to fly fullsize prototype capsule from Saudi Arabia

The Spanish high-altitude balloon startup Halo is now planning to fly from Saudi Arabia the second test flight of its fullsize prototype tourist capsule.

Headquartered in Madrid, the company, which specialises in stratospheric commercial flights, will embark on its sixth test flight from the kingdom in June, the company said in a release, with conditional approval from the Communications, Space and Technology Commission (CST), the Saudi Arabia authority responsible for space regulation.

Halo Space CEO Carlos Mira said in a statement that this test will validate the integrated operation of all critical systems, “bringing us one step closer to our goal,” which includes plans to begin commercial flights in 2026.

The company plans to set up bases for flights in Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Australia, and Spain, where it hopes to do high altitude tourist balloon flights to about 20 miles elevation. We should also not be surprised if it does classified reconnaissance flights for Saudi Arabia as well.

Whether it will do what it says however still depends on the final outcome of a lawsuit against it by another Spanish company, Zero 2 Infinity, which claims Halo stole its technology. The courts have ruled in Zero 2’s favor, but whether a final settlement has occurred is unclear.

Northrop Grumman writes off $100 million on its fixed-price Lunar Gateway contract

Northrop Grumman announced on January 25, 2024 that it has written off another $42 million on its fixed-price contract with NASA to build the main habitable module for its Lunar Gateway space station, bringing the total losses so far to $100 million.

The company blamed the latest charge primarily on “cost growth stemming from evolving Lunar Gateway architecture and mission requirements combined with macroeconomic challenges.” The company offered the same explanation when it reported the charge in the second quarter.

Northrop received a $935 million fixed-price contract from NASA in July 2021 to build the module, which is based on the company’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft. HALO will provide initial living accommodations on the Gateway and includes several docking ports for visiting Orion spacecraft and lunar landers as well as additional modules provided by international partners. It will launch together with the Maxar-built Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) on a Falcon Heavy.

In a fixed price contract NASA is not suppose to issue change orders. What must be happening is that either the company or NASA are recognizing there are some issues with the initial and then revised designs, forcing Northrop Grumman to issue its own change orders, delaying development and adding costs.

That the company is having problems however is a bit baffling. First, space station module design is not new. There is a history going back decades on how to do this. Second, Northrop is basing this module design on its already launched Cygnus freighters. Though unmanned, these freighters still have to be habitable after docking with ISS. It should not be so difficult to upgrade them.

Regardless, the company has now become hostile to bidding on any future fixed price contracts, or if it does, it will bid much higher (a decision that caused it to lose in another recent bidding contest). Hopefully this decision on fixed price contracts, similar to Boeing’s own decision, will not cause NASA to abandon such contracts. Just because these big, old-space companies can’t work efficiently doesn’t mean others can’t. Fixed-price is how every business in the real world must function. For most NASA projects such a deal is realistic. If these old companies can’t function practically let new companies bid instead. This will be better for NASA and the entire American space industry.

Spanish court indicts two high-altitude balloon companies for stealing from third

In a legal battle between the three Spanish high-altitude balloon tourist companies (Zero-2, Halo, and Eos-X), a court in Spain has indicted the latter two for stealing trade secrets from the first.

The case stems from Zero 2 Infinity’s allegations that the people hired to raise money for its space tourism business established two competing firms based on Zero 2 Infinity’s intellectual property.

After asking for extensive documentation to share with potential investors, some of the individuals indicted “changed the logo in the presentations and managed to raise 1 million euros for a company that was just a website with some” computer generated imagery, Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales, Zero 2 Infinity founder and CEO, told SpaceNews. “They thought they could do that because Zero 2 Infinity was in financial distress, in part because we were expecting that 1 million euros to arrive.”

…The law in question carries potential penalties “of imprisonment from three to five years” if the secrets in question were “disseminated, revealed, or transferred to third parties” in addition to fines, Spanish attorney Leonardo López Marcos, co-founder of the International Legal Center for Space Sustainability, said by email.

One of the companies, Halo, apparently used the fund-raisers as a go-between so that it never had any direct links to the original company, Zero-2. Of the three companies, Halo has now done the most test flights. Whether this ruling will force it to shut down remains unclear.

NASA changes have cost Northrop Grumman $36 million on its Lunar Gateway module

Northrop Grumman yesterday revealed that unexpected requirement changes to the specifications of its HALO module for NASA’s Lunar Gateway space station has raised its cost for this fixed price contract by $36 million.

In the company’s fiscal second quarter financial results released July 27, the company announced an unfavorable estimate-at-completion adjustment of $36 million for its work on the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module, one of the first elements of the Gateway. The company blamed the charge on “evolving Lunar Gateway architecture and mission requirements combined with macroeconomic challenges” that caused cost growth on the program.

…“We think that is best applied for commercial items or production programs with stable requirements and mature designs,” [the company’s CEO] said of fixed-price contracts. “As it’s turning out on the HALO program, the requirements are not as stable as we or the government anticipated, and we’re working with them to address that change management as we go forward.”

The HALO module was an upgrade of the company’s Cygnus cargo freighter, with its original fixed-price contract for $935 million.

On a fixed-price contract, NASA is not supposed to change its specifications. The company gets somewhat general requirements from NASA, and then builds the product to its own specifications. It appears that either NASA managers don’t seem to understand this and are causing the company problems, or the company itself had not anticipated some design and construction issues before bidding and are struggling to address them now. In the latter case Northrop Grumman managers might have themselves not understood the nature of fixed-price contracts, and had assumed NASA would simply pick up any increase in the project’s budget, as it does in cost-plus contracts. It apparently is not, and thus this old big space company is now suddenly forced to face reality.

Spanish high altitude tourist balloon company prepares for first test flight

The Spanish high altitude tourist balloon company HALO is preparing to do the first test flight in December from India, with the second test flight planned for the first quarter of 2023 from Spain.

The Madrid-based company will take tourists to the edge of space in a capsule attached to a balloon – with prices from £87,000 to £174,000 (100,000 to 200,000 Euros).

The final capsule design will have capacity for 8 passengers and a pilot and feature panoramic windows which allow 360-degree views of the Earth at an altitude of up to 25 miles.

…The first commercial flights are expected to start in 2025 and the company plans to operate in four continents, making a total of 400 commercial trips with 3,000 passengers per year from 2029.

This market now appears to have three companies vying for customers, the American companies World View and Space Perspectives, and this Spanish company.

Northrop Grumman wins contract to build Lunar Gateway’s habitable module

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday announced that it has awarded Northrop Grumman the construction contract for building HALO, (Habitation and Logistics Outpost), the module where astronauts will live and work on its Lunar Gateway space station.

Combined with earlier development contracts this contract, worth $935 million, brings the total fixed-price cost to about $1.1 billion.

[HALO], one of the first for the Gateway, will serve as a habitat for visiting astronauts and a command post for the lunar orbiting facility. It will have docking ports for Orion spacecraft, cargo vehicles like SpaceX’s Dragon XL and lunar landers, as well as for later modules to be added by international partners. HALO is based on the Cygnus spacecraft that Northrop Grumman uses to transport cargo to the International Space Station, but extensively modified with docking ports, enhanced life support and other new subsystems.

This module is not expected to launch before 2024. Moreover, it is supposed to work in conjunction with what NASA calls its Artemis 3 mission, the third launch of SLS and the first to dock with Gateway. SLS however is so far only funded through its first two flights, and has a schedule that is presently highly uncertain.

There is great irony here. HALO, based on the Cygnus cargo freighter, will be about that size. If the present schedule for SpaceX’s Starship continues as expected, it will be flying to the Moon at about the same time, and will have a cargo bay big enough to store several Cygnus freighters inside. And though no work has yet been done to make that cargo bay habitable, Starship’s cost per launch, about $2 million, is so far below the $1.1 billion cost for HALO that it will certainly cost much less than HALO to make it a habitable station. And it will be gigantic in comparison.