Lockheed Martin & Boeing get Space Force satellite development contracts

The Space Force has awarded Lockheed Martin and Boeing $66 million contracts each to design their own version of a new communications satellite for the military.

Over the next 15 months, the companies will create prototype satellites showing how they would meet the Space Force’s requirements for the MUOS satellites. DoD announced the contract awards Jan. 25.

The Space Force is expected to select one of the companies in 2025 to manufacture two flight-ready narrowband satellites to modernize the existing constellation of five MUOS satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Narrowband communications use relatively small amounts of data, but are critical for military operations.

A third unnamed company also bid but was not selected. The choice of Boeing for this competition is surprising, considering its numerous management and engineering problems across a wide range of products, from airplanes to space capsules. NASA itself has been so dissatisfied with Boeing’s work that in 2020 it decided at that time “to eliminate Boeing from future award consideration.” That decision appears to still stand. As far as I can remember Boeing not won any NASA contracts since.

Moreover, Lockheed Martin built the current MUOS satellites in orbit, while Boeing does not have a big reputation in recent years building satellites.

All told, it will therefore be extremely surprising if Boeing wins this competition. I suspect the Space Force issued this contract to help keep Boeing a viable company and to give it an opportunity to get its act together. Rewarding incompetence however is rarely successful.

Military awards satellite contracts worth $2.5 billion to three companies

The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency (SDA) today announced the award of contracts to Sierra Space, Lockheed Martin, and L3Harris for the construction of 54 reconnaissance satellites, with a total value of $2.5 billion.

The 54 satellites will form part of the SDA’s Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture, a massive missile detection and tracking constellation in low Earth orbit that’s being built and launched in “tranches.” The trio of contracts announced today is for 18 satellites each in the Tranche 2 Tracking Layer: L3Harris’s award is worth $919 million; Lockheed Martin, $890 million; and Sierra Space, $740 million.

Last week SDA had awarded Rocket Lab its own 18-satellite contract for this constellation, worth $515 million.

The contract awards signal several major changes in the Pentagon’s space strategy. First, it is farming the work out to multiple companies, two of which (Rocket Lab and Sierra Space) are new. In the past the military relied on a very limited number of companies, all well established, with most contracts going to only one vender. New companies had great difficulties getting in the door.

Second, it is building a constellation of smallsats rather than single large satellites. Smallsats are cheaper to build and replace, and are much harder military targets to hit.

Third, though it appears the military is designing these satellites, it appears it is still shifting much of the work from it to the private sector. In other words, the Pentagon is becoming a customer instead of a builder. The result will be a healthy space industry capable of doing more for itself and the military.

ESA firms up space station partnership with Voyager Space

The European Space Agency (ESA) and the American company Voyager Space last week signed an agreement making Voyager’s Starlab space station Europe’s main space station destination, replacing ISS.

Starlab will fulfill that role, at least partially, in the future for the space agencies of individual ESA member states. It’s expected to launch as soon as 2028, with operations set to start in 2029. This will include access for astronaut missions and to conduct research as well as providing opportunities for commercial business development. Starlab is also set to provide a complete “end-to-end” system in low-Earth orbit to which European crews and cargo will journey.

This European deal became more likely when Airbus joined the partnership of Voyager and Lockheed Martin in January 2023. It is also probably why Northrop Grumman in October 2023 abandoned its own space station project and joined this one instead. ESA is a big customer, most likely to guarantee the most profits.

What makes this deal different than ISS is that the station will not be owned by this large government customer. The companies building Starlab — led by Voyager — will be free to sell its services to anyone who wishes to use it. This deal also means that NASA and ESA will be going separate ways after ISS, no longer partnering on a station.

Space Force awards multi-satellite contracts to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman

Capitalism in space: In what is a landmark deal indicating the complete shift by the military from building its own satellites to letting private enterprise do it, the Space Development Agency (SDA) of the Space Force yesterday announced it has awarded Lockeheed Martin and Northrop Grumman each a contract to build and operate 36 satellites.

The 72 satellites will make up a portion of SDA’s network known as Tranche 2 Transport Layer. SDA is building a large constellation called the proliferated warfighter space architecture that includes a Transport Layer of interconnected communications satellites and a Tracking Layer of missile-detection and warning sensor satellites. Northrop Grumman’s contract for 36 satellites is worth approximately $733 million. The agreement with Lockheed Martin, also for 36 satellites, is worth $816 million, SDA said.

What makes this contract different than previous military satellite contracts is that the military will do relatively little design. It has released the basic specifications, and is asking private enterprise to do the work for it. It is a customer, not a builder. When the military attempted its own design and construction, the job would take sometimes a decade or more, cost many billions (with cost overruns), and often failed. This new constellation is targeting a 2026 launch, only two years from now.

The constellation will also be more robust than the gold-plated giant satellites the military would build previously. Rather than rely on a single do-it-all satellite which is easy to take out, the constellation has many satellites, and can easily compensate if one or even a few are damaged or destroyed.

This shift was one of the fundamental reasons the military wanted to create a separate Space Force. As part of the Air Force the office politics within that branch of the military had been impossible to make this shift. Too many managers in the Air Force liked building big gold-plated satellites. Once the Space Force took over those managers were taken out of the equation.

Lockheed Martin opens factory to build smallsats on an assembly-line basis

Capitalism in space: As part of fulfilling a contract won from the Space Force, Lockheed Martin has now opened a new factory in Colorado expressly designed to build smallsats on an assembly-line basis.

Lockheed Martin’s 20,000-square-foot factory is located at the company’s Waterton campus near Denver, Colorado. It has six parallel assembly lines and capacity to manufacture 180 small satellites per year, Kevin Huttenhoff, Lockheed Martin’s senior manager for space data transport, told SpaceNews. The first satellites to be made at the facility are for the U.S. Space Force’s Space Development Agency. SDA plans to build a mesh network of hundreds of data transport and missile-detection sensor satellites in low Earth orbit.

Lockheed Martin in February 2022 won a $700 million contract to produce 42 communications satellites for SDA’s Transport Layer Tranche 1. The company in November 2020 also won a $187.5 million contract to manufacture 10 Transport Layer Tranche 0 satellites that are scheduled to launch later this month. The Transport Layer Tranche 1 satellites — projected to launch in late 2024 — will be made at the new factory. The Tranche 0 satellites were assembled at a different facility where Lockheed Martin manufactures Global Positioning System (GPS) spacecraft.

The multiple assembly lines allows the company to configure each for a different customer and satellite, with one for example producing smallsats for a military contract while another produces smallsats for a commercial customer.

Of all the big space companies, Lockheed Martin has made the most moves quickly adapting to the new space market of new rockets and small satellites. Not only has it built this facility, it has been an major investor in several new smallsat rocket companies, including Rocket Lab and ABL. It also opened its first assembly-line smallsat factory in 2017.

Arianespace signs deal to study the possibility of using Orbex’s commercial rocket for launches

In what must be considered a major sea change in Europe, Arianespace — the European Space Agency’s (ESA) official commercial launch company — has now signed a deal with Orbex, a rocket startup based in the United Kingdom, to study the possibility of using Orbex’s not-yet-launched Prime rocket for future European launches.

In particular, it is expected that future collaboration would be particularly beneficial for customers planning small satellite constellations, providing a flexible solution for Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) payloads. Light and heavy-lift launch vehicles could jointly support customers in deploying their initial constellations into the required orbital planes, provide precise injections of a smaller number of satellites through dedicated missions, as well as provide replenishment and replacement launches.

While the ESA began developing a partnership with Orbex back in 2021 when it awarded Orbex a development contract worth 7.45 million euros, for Arianespace to go directly to this independent company for launch services suggests the new policy of ESA to stop developing its own rockets but to become a customer hiring the rockets of private companies is gaining steam.

Lockheed Martin reorganizes its space divisions to better compete in the new commercial market

Lockheed Martin today announced that it is reorganizing its space divisions to make them better aligned with the new commercial market, and thus better able to win market share.

The company will streamline its operation from “five lines of business to three,” the first focused on commercial space, the second focused on classified military projects, and the third focused on military missile work.

As a big space company, Lockheed Martin has made a great effort in recent years to break into the commercial rocket industry. It was a major investor in Rocket Lab, and is also a major investor in the rocket startup ABL, which it is sending a lot of business. It also realigned its satellite construction business to focus on smallsats, including investing a lot of money in the smallsat company Terran Orbital.

This reorganization is clearly an effort to underline these changes. Whether it will work remains to be seen. Often such reorganizations in big older corporations end up being nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Aerojet Rocketdyne wins contract from Lockheed Martin to build more Orion engines

Aerojet Rocketdyne announced yesterday that it has been awarded a new $67 million contract from Lockheed Martin to build the Orion propulsion engines for Artemis missions six though eight.

This contract option includes delivery of three additional sets of Orion’s service module auxiliary engines and three additional jettison motors. The eight auxiliary engines each produce 105 pounds of thrust to help maintain Orion’s in-space trajectory and position, and supplement the Orion Main Engine. The jettison motor, located on Orion’s Launch Abort System (LAS), generates 40,000 pounds of thrust to separate the LAS from the crew module during both nominal operations and abort scenarios, allowing the spacecraft to continue on its journey. The jettison motor is the only motor on the LAS that fires during every mission.

These Artemis missions are not expected to occur until very late in this decade, by which time Starship will likely be making regular commercial trips to the Moon. At that time Orion will look increasingly ridiculous next to Starship, and will demonstrate starkly the difference in what government can do versus a free private sector.

Lockheed Martin tests in-orbit cubesat rendezvous

Using two cubesats released separately after launch, Lockheed Martin has successfully tested maneuvering and rendezvous in space.

The two cubesats, each the size of a toaster, were deployed 300 kilometers above geostationary orbit from a ring-shaped secondary payload that carried multiple smallsats. They were released three days apart about 750 kilometers away from each other and a month later they were navigating within 400 meters of each other, Karla Brown, Linuss program manager, told reporters during a news conference at Lockheed Martin’s technology center at the Catalyst Campus.

One of the cubesats performed the role of servicing vehicle and the other was the resident space object. She said she expects the satellites to come even closer, to about 200 meters as the experiment continues. The more significant goal that was accomplished was proving AI algorithms that would be needed to perform a space servicing mission, Brown said.

Maybe the most interesting aspect of this project however is how it is funded. This is old-fashioned R&D (research & development), funded not by the government but by Lockheed Martin as part of a a suite of related in-space servicing projects. Before the arrival of the military-industrial complex post World War II, such work was always paid for in house by the private sector. This commercial R&D was often given great freedom to experiment, in the hope that it would result in new products producing profits.

With the arrival of lots of government money in the 1950s and 1960s, that private R&D money dried up. Big space companies would instead only do the research and development that was funded by the government, either by NASA or the Pentagon. As a result, innovation dried up as well.

The return of private R&D likely means we shall once again see more innovation, since it will once again be done to search out new innovative ways to do things.

Lockheed Martin picked by Australia to build two military communications satellites

Australia’s military announced yesterday that it has chosen Lockheed Martin as the “preferred bidder” to build two military communications satellites.

According to Australian media reports, the ADF [Australian Defense Force] is interested in buying at least two geostationary communications satellites and wants a sovereign military satcom capability. Currently Australia’s defense forces rely on commercial satellite services and on the U.S. Wideband Global Satcom constellation. Air Vice-Marshal David Scheul, head of Australia’s Air Defence and Space Systems Division, said the project will deliver the country’s “first sovereign-controlled satellite communication system over the Indo-Pacific ocean regions.”

Lockheed Martin edged out competing teams led by Airbus, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Australia’s largest satellite operator Optus.

To get the contract, Lockheed Martin partnered with almost a dozen Australian companies. The specifics of the deal however still have to be worked out.

Space station builder Voyager raises $80 million in private investment capital

Capitalism in space: Voyager Space, one of three companies that NASA has provided funds to build a private space station, has now raised $80 million in private investment capital.

The funding includes participation from NewSpace Capital, Midway Venture Partners and Industrious Ventures, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings and other documents viewed by TechCrunch. Seraphim Space also participated, TechCrunch has confirmed. The funding was filed with the SEC on January 27.

The company is building Starlab in partnership with Nanoracks (which is the majority owner of Voyager) and Lockheed Martin, which has already received $160 million from NASA.

ABL’s first launch attempt fails

The first launch of ABL’s RS1 rocket failed yesterday when the first stage engines shut down right after liftoff so that the rocket fell back onto the launchpad and exploded.

The company said in subsequent updates that the nine engines in its first stage shut down simultaneously after liftoff, causing the vehicle to fall back to the pad and explode. The company did not disclose when after liftoff the shutdown took place or the altitude the rocket reached. The explosion damaged the launch facility but no personnel were injured.

This rocket startup has raises several hundred million dollars, with its chief investor Lockheed Martin, which has also signed a contract for as many as 58 RS1 launches.

Blue Origin-led team bids for NASA manned lunar lander contract

Capitalism in space: Though few details have been released, Blue Origin has teamed up with Boeing and Lockheed Martin to bid for a NASA contract to build a second manned lunar lander, after SpaceX’s Starship.

Blue Origin revealed its team’s submission to that second NASA program in a brief statement posted on its website on Tuesday, saying “in partnership with NASA, this team will achieve sustained presence on the Moon.”

The deadline for proposals was Tuesday. NASA is expected to make an award decision in June 2023.

Blue Origin’s team also includes spacecraft software firm Draper, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Astrobotic and Honeybee Robotics, a manufacturer of military and civil robotic systems that was acquired by Blue Origin in January.

It will be interesting to see if this proposed lander is significantly different than the previous proposal, which NASA considered overpriced and not as capable as Starship.

UK govt requests public comment on Shetland spaceport

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of the United Kingdom, tasked with regulating space operations, has requested public comment on the environmental impact of the proposed Shetland spaceport, dubbed SaxaVord and presently under construction.

Shetland Islands Council granted planning permission in February, with Lockheed Martin and Skyrora among the companies looking at launching satellites, as early as next year.

One of the environmental considerations is for no launches or tests between mid-May and the end of June to avoid disturbing breeding birds. U nst’s 135 bird species include red-throated divers, merlins, puffins and Arctic terns.

The spaceport has said it expects to conduct at least 30 launches a year, once operational. That number is probably optimistic.

Meanwhile, it is beginning to appear that — at least in these early stages — the CAA is not going to be helpful to Great Britain’s effort to develop a space industry. Not only does this action suggest it is not enthused about this spaceport and is putting up barriers to it, it has slow-walked the licensing of the Virgin Orbit launch from Cornwall, costing that company so much money because of the delay that its liquidity was threatened.

Lockheed Martin invests $100 million in startup satellite maker Terran Orbital

Lockheed Martin has now invested $100 million in the startup smallsat-maker Terran Orbital, which has already been building satellites of a wide variety for customers.

Under the deal, which runs through 2035, the smaller Florida-based firm will build SAR and other advanced payloads, as well as satellite sub-assemblies, for the aerospace behemoth, Terran said in a press release today. These include electro-optical, hyperspectral, infrared and secure communication payloads, as well as things like star trackers and flight computers.

With this deal, Terran has also decided that it will no longer launch its own radar constellation, as that constellation would have competed directly with its radar satellite customers. Instead, it will make its radar satellite for others, including Lockheed Martin.

As an example of the variety of smallsats Terran Orbital has been building, it manufactured the smallsat lunar orbiter CAPSTONE for NASA, now on its way to the Moon but being operated for NASA by a different private company, Advanced Space.

NASA buys 3 Orion capsules from Lockheed Martin for $2 billion

Nice work if you can get it! Earlier this week NASA awarded Lockheed Martin a new contract worth $1.99 billion to build three more Orion capsules for its Artemis program.

This order marks the second three missions under the agency’s Orion Production and Operations Contract (OPOC), an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contract for up to 12 vehicles. A breakout of these orders includes:

  • 2019: NASA initiates OPOC IDIQ and orders three Orion spacecraft for Artemis missions III-V.
  • 2022: NASA orders three additional Orion spacecraft missions for Artemis VI-VIII for $1.99 billion.
  • In the future: NASA can order an additional six Orion missions.

Under OPOC, Lockheed Martin and NASA have reduced the costs on Orion by 50% per vehicle on Artemis III through Artemis V, compared to vehicles built during the design and development phase. The vehicles built for Artemis VI, VII and VIII will see an additional 30% cost reduction.

Lawdy me! They’ve reduced the price! Lockheed Martin is only charging NASA three-quarters of a billion dollars per capsule on this new contract (after NASA spent about $18 billion for the development of the first six capsules– that’s $3 billion each). And Lockheed Martin will only charge about a half billion per capsule for future capsules! My heart be still.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is designing, testing, building, and will likely launch its reusable Starship manned spacecraft, which could launch about 10 Orion capsules on each launch, for about $10 billion total. Once flying the expected cost per launch will likely be much less than $100 million, with SpaceX claiming it could be as low as $2 million. Even if you add the development cost for these launches, Starship will cost less than Orion by many magnitudes, on its first launch.

I wonder, which is the better bargain? NASA clearly can’t figure it out, and NASA has the smartest, most brilliant people in the universe working for it.

ABL completes dress rehearsal countdown for its first RS1 rocket launch

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company ABL successfully completed a full dress rehearsal countdown for its first RS1 rocket this past week, and is presently negotiating with the FAA the launch date for that rocket’s first test launch.

Though ABL is its own independent company, one of its biggest investors has been Lockheed Martin. In fact, in almost all ways, ABL is a Lockheed Martin division, and appears to be part of the older and bigger company’s strategy for entering the smallsat market.

Cost overruns at Lockheed Martin threaten smallsat Lunar Trailblazer orbiter

NASA is now doing a review to decide if it will kill a smallsat lunar orbiter project, dubbed Lunar Trailblazer, due to cost overruns at Lockheed Martin.

Bethany Ehlmann, principal investigator for Lunar Trailblazer at Caltech, said in a presentation at LEAG Aug. 24 that Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft subcontractor, notified NASA of “recent and projected future overruns” on the project in June. Neither Ehlmann, NASA nor Lockheed Martin quantified those overruns.

“As we brought this mission from paper to life, the engineering and design efforts exceeded our original estimate,” Lockheed Martin said in a statement to SpaceNews Aug. 25. “Our Lockheed Martin team continues to implement cutting edge digital production tools and seek out operational efficiencies to minimize any extra cost incurred over Lunar Trailblazer’s development.”

The wording in this Lockheed Martin statement is meaningless blather, with no specific details. The bottom line however is this: Lunar Trailblazer was meant to demonstrate that it was possible to build a small low-cost science probe, in this case a lunar orbiter, and do it for no more than $55 million. Apparently, Lockheed Martin didn’t take that objective seriously. Instead, it thought it could do what it has done for decades — as have all the old big space contractors — pay no attention to cost, go overbudget, and then have NASA pick up the slack. It appears NASA might not do it this time.

ABL completes static fire test of first stage of its new RS1 rocket

Capitalism in space: The new smallsat rocket startup ABL has successfully completed a full static fire test of the first stage of its new RS1 rocket from its launchpad in Kodiak, Alaska.

Company executives said that they performed the static-fire test of the first stage of its RS1 rocket July 9 at the Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska on Kodiak Island, the site where the company plans to conduct its first launch.

“The operation verified our startup sequence and stage level engine performance,” Harry O’Hanley, chief executive of ABL, said in a statement to SpaceNews. “A testament to our team’s intense preparation, we completed the test on the first attempt.”

The static-fire test also verified the performance of the ground systems, including a portable launch stool that can be packed into a shipping container. That system, O’Hanley said, enables launching from a flat pad like at Kodiak.

The company is presently completing testing of the rocket’s upper stage, with its next task to mate the two and complete a full dress rehearsal countdown. Though no launch date has been set, the company has been targeting a launch before the end of this year.

Aerojet Rocketdyne reprimands its executive chairman for trying to oust CEO

During the failed effort of Lockheed Martin to buy Aerojet Rocketdyne late last year, it appears Aerojet’s executive chairman, Warren Lichtenstein, made improper public and private attempts to enlist others to replace the company’s CEO, Eileen Drake, even though the board had not authorized a search for a new CEO and had in fact issued a memo telling Lichtenstein not to look for one.

Yesterday a formal investigation [pdf] came to that conclusion, and reprimanded Lichtenstein for those actions.

Mr. Lichtenstein acted improperly in taking those actions, including by failing to follow the directives given to him in the Guidance Memo. This memorandum is a formal reprimand for that conduct, and a
mandate to Mr. Lichtenstein that he comply with the Company’s Code of Conduct and make no statements or communications to persons external to the Company concerning the Company’s CEO, any search for a new CEO, management tenure or succession generally, or the strategic direction of the Company, unless (i) specifically pre-approved by the Board, (ii) the statements or communications are made to stockholders as part of his efforts concerning the election of directors at the next annual meeting, or (iii) the statements or communications are made as part of his efforts seeking suitable persons to serve as CEO of the Company in the event his nominees are elected.

While most of this is typical corporate office politics, it does reflect badly on the management at Aerojet Rocketdyne. It appears the board is not working together well. For example, Lichtenstein claimed he had these discussions because he was concerned the merger — which he supported — would fail, and wanted to take actions to address those concerns. Apparently the board did not. Another example is the fight with Boeing over the valve problems in Starliner.

Since the merger failed, this rocket engine company is now on its own again. Though for awhile it seemed to be struggling, the recent deal with ULA for 116 engines appears to have put it on its feet again.

Astra signs deal to launch from SaxaVord Spaceport in Shetland

Capitalism in space: Astra today announced an agreement with the SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands to begin launches from that United Kingdom location, beginning in 2023.

These launches will be the first by Astra outside the U.S. It is the second American company to sign on with SaxaVord, with Lockheed Martin’s ABL rocket company smallsat startup planning its own first launch there later this year. SavaVord also has a launch deal with a French company, Venture Orbital Systems, which hopes to launch later this decade.

None of these however could be the first launch from the United Kingdom since the 1960s. Virgin Orbit has a deal to launch from a runway from a Cornwall airport later this year. Furthermore, the rocket company Orbex is planning to launch its Prime rocket from a differenct spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland.

Shetland spaceport construction to begin in March

Capitalism in space: Construction of the United Kingdom’s first spaceport in more than a half century is now set to begin this month in the Shetland Islands, with the first launch expected before the end of the year.

The Lamba Ness peninsular in Unst will be home to the £43 million spaceport, with builders set to start work in late March, after Shetland Islands Council gave the project planning permission.

Three launchpads will be built at the SaxaVord spaceport, allowing for the launch of small satellites into either polar or sun-synchronous low-Earth orbits.

The company is aiming to launch 30 rockets a year, and has set the target of seeing its first orbital launch from UK soil after the third quarter of this year.

It appears now that the United Kingdom is going to have two different competing spaceports, one on the Shetland Islands and the second in Sutherland, Scotland. It appears the UK rocket startup Skyrora as well as a partnership between Lockhead Martin and the smallsat rocket startup ABL will launch from Shetland, while the UK company Orbex will use Sutherland.

Lockheed Martin cancels merger with Aerojet Rocketdyne

Capitalism in space: Faced with a lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) opposing the merger, Lockheed Martin yesterday announced that it is terminating its effort to buy Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Aerojet released a press release at the same time, insisting that the company remains viable and healthy, but there are doubts. While its rocket engines (its main business) remain technically reliable and well-built, they are relatively expensive. Moreover, the shift by rocket companies to build their own engines in the last decade has reduced its customer base significantly.

This loss of market is now compounded by a battle between two factions on the company’s board of directors.

While monopolies do not encourage competition, the merger with Lockheed Martin would have been mostly good for the rocket industry. It would have quickly given Lockheed Martin the skills to make rockets, and kept Aerojet Rocketdyne alive, albeit as part of another company. Now the latter faces extinction, and the former will need more time to develop the capabilities required in its recently-won NASA contract to launch a rocket from Mars to return samples.

And once again, the FTC lawsuit indicates that the Biden administration has decided to take a heavy-regulatory hand when it comes to business. The result however of this approach in this case has not produced more competition, but the likely bankruptcy of at least one company.

Lockheed Martin wins NASA contract to build Mars rocket

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday awarded Lockheed Martin a $194 million contract to build the Mars rocket that will lift Perseverance’s samples into orbit for return to Earth.

Set to become the first rocket fired off another planet, the MAV [Mars Ascent Vehicle] is a crucial part of a campaign to retrieve samples collected by NASA’s Perseverance rover and deliver them to Earth for advanced study. NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander, another important part of the campaign, would carry the MAV to Mars’ surface, landing near or in Jezero Crater to gather the samples cached by Perseverance. The samples would be returned to the lander, which would serve as the launch platform for the MAV. With the sample container secured, the MAV would then launch.

Once it reaches Mars orbit, the container would be captured by an ESA (European Space Agency) Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft outfitted with NASA’s Capture, Containment, and Return System payload. The spacecraft would bring the samples to Earth safely and securely in the early- to mid-2030s.

According to this project’s webpage, the European Space Agency (ESA) is building that they call a “fetch rover” which will be deployed from the rover to get the samples and bring them back to the MAV.

There are a lot of uncertainties in this scenario. It has been decades since Lockheed Martin built rockets. ESA has not yet built an operational Mars rover. It is also unclear who will build NASA’s lander and capture/return payload. Thus, do not expect this mission to launch “as early as ’26,” as the press release says. I predict it will launch at least five, maybe ever ten years, later.

FTC moves to block Lockheed Martin’s acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne

The Federal Trade Commission has sued to block Lockheed Martin’s purchase for $4.4 billion the rocket engine company Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The FTC apparently believes that the acquisition would give Lockheed Martin an unfair competitive advantage. It could refuse to sell Aerojet’s engines to the competitors who depend on them. It also would be able to obtain some of its competitors’ proprietary information through Aerojet.

This quote from the article however explains this action more accurately:

Over the past year, Lockheed Martin has argued that the merger should follow the same template as Northrop Grumman’s acquisition in 2018 of solid rocket motors manufacturer Orbital ATK. The Northrop-Orbital deal was approved by regulators on condition that the company agreed to supply motors to its competitors.

“The FTC during the Biden administration has taken a different view on market concentration and vertical integration than the last one, which approved the Northrop Grumman-Orbital ATK deal,” noted industry analyst Byron Callan, of Capital Alpha Partners. [emphasis mine]

This appears to be more evidence that Democratic Party control of the White House is resulting in more regulation and greater interference in the private sector. In this particular case that interference might very well cause Aerojet Rocketdyne to shut down entirely, since its customer base has been disappearing. It isn’t garnering any new customers because its rocket engines cost too much. Folded into Lockheed Martin the company might be reshaped and become productive and competitive again. Unfortunately, the Biden administration thinks it knows better, and might prevent that from happening.

Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin to partner in building commercial space station

Capitalism in space: The companies Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin have announced that they have formed a partnership to build their own private commercial space station, dubbed Starlab.

Nanoracks, its majority owner Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin, will collaborate on the development of a commercial space station as others in industry warn of a potential space station gap.

Nanoracks said Oct. 21 that it was partnering with Lockheed Martin and Voyager Space on a commercial space station called Starlab. Nanoracks will be the prime contractor with Voyager handling strategy and investment and Lockheed serving as the manufacturer and technical integrator.

Starlab would consist of a docking node with an inflatable module attached to one side and a spacecraft bus, providing power and propulsion, attached to the other side. Starlab will have a volume of 340 cubic meters, about three-eighths that of the International Space Station, and generate 60 kilowatts of power. Starlab will be equipped with a robotic arm and “state-of-the-art” lab, and be able to host four astronauts at a time.

They are aiming for a 2027 launch.

A Lucy solar panel on Lucy fails to latch properly after deployment

Partly deployed panel

Engineers at Lockheed Martin (the prime contractor) and Northrop Grumann (which built the panels) are now troubleshooting an issue with one of the solar panels on the asteroid probe Lucy, which failed to latch properly after deployment.

The NASA graphic to the right illustrates this issue, though the graphic might not accurately portray the exact circumstance at Lucy. To get more solar power, Lucy’s panels are larger, and thus were designed to unfurl like a fan rather than the more commonly used accordion design. One panel has not completed that unfurling.

NASA’s announcement tries to minimize the issue but this quote from the link makes it clear that this could be a very big problem.

It’s not yet clear whether the array in question is, in fact, fully deployed but not latched in place or whether it did not reach full deployment and is not generating the same amount of power as its counterpart. It’s also not yet clear whether Lucy can safely fire its maneuvering thrusters with an unlatched array.

NASA awards small design lunar lander contracts to five companies

In what appears to be an effort by NASA to placate the losers in the bidding for the manned lunar lander contract, won by SpaceX’s Starship, the agency this week awarded small design contracts related to future lunar lander construction to five different companies, totaling $ 146 million and with the large bulk of the cash going to those losers.

The contracts were as follows:

  • Dynetics (a Leidos company) of Huntsville, Alabama, $40.8 million.
  • Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colorado, $35.2 million.
  • Northrop Grumman of Dulles, Virginia, $34.8 million.
  • Blue Origin Federation of Kent, Washington, $25.6 million.
  • SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, $9.4 million.

From the press release:

The selected companies will develop lander design concepts, evaluating their performance, design, construction standards, mission assurance requirements, interfaces, safety, crew health accommodations, and medical capabilities. The companies will also mitigate lunar lander risks by conducting critical component tests and advancing the maturity of key technologies.

While the distribution of the money suggests NASA wishes to provide the most support to the companies that lost the bid, it also gives us a hint of what the agency presently thinks of those losers. Of the losers, Blue Origin received the least, suggesting that NASA remains skeptical of that company’s effort. It also might be NASA’s signal to Blue Origin that endless lawsuits and protests — rather than actual construction — is not a good way to make friends and influence people. This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that Dynetics received the most cash, even though like Blue Origin it has yet to launch anything into orbit.

This distribution of money is also part of the typical pattern of DC crony capitalism, designed almost like pay offs to capture these companies and make them partners in the Washington swamp.

One big space company, Boeing, however received nothing. The company might not have submitted a proposal, but I suspect that if it did, NASA dismissed it outright based on the agency’s decision last year to eliminate Boeing from such contract considerations because of the incredible weakness of its recent bids. I think that Boeing will remain on the outs until it finally gets Starliner flying and operational.

Lockheed Martin and General Motors partner to design manned lunar rover

Capitalism in space: Lockheed Martin and General Motors announced yesterday that they are partnering to design a manned lunar rover, intended for sale to NASA’s Artemis program as well as any other manned lunar missions anyone else should decide to fly.

Lockheed and GM don’t have a NASA contract to build the LTV [Lunar Terrain Vehicle]; the agency hasn’t awarded any such deals yet. But the companies are positioning themselves to be in the driver’s seat when such decisions are made — and when other customers may come along as well.

Obviously the first customer for this moon buggy would be NASA for Artemis. Nor is this the only manned rover being planned. Toyota and Japan’s space agency JAXA are also partnering to build one.

The decision by NASA to use Starship as its lunar lander however has made such a project much more viable. Unlike the lunar landers proposed by Blue Origin and Dynectics, Starship has the payload capacity to carry such things to the Moon, right off the bat. Thus it makes sense now to start designing them and offering them for sale. We should not be surprised if other car manufacturers start proposing their own manned rovers.

Moreover, Starship’s potential also means these rovers could be purchased by others for work on the Moon. If anyone besides NASA decides to hire SpaceX and Starship for their own lunar missions, the Lockheed Martin/GM LTV can also be sold to them. So can the Toyota rover. So could one built by Ford or Mazarati.

Isn’t freedom and capitalism wonderful? Instead of a half century of the nothing that international cooperation and government control brought us in space, private enterprise is suddenly in a burst opening the entire solar system to the world. And don’t expect the pace to slow.

Rocket startup ABL Space gets giant Lockheed Martin launch contract

Capitalism in space: Smallsat rocket startup ABL Space, which has yet to launch its first test rocket, has won a gigantic launch contract from Lockheed Martin for as many as 58 launches through 2029.

Under terms of the block-buy agreement between ABL Space Systems and Lockheed, the aerospace giant will purchase “up to” 26 launches through 2026 and as many as 32 additional launches through 2029. If the terms are fulfilled, this would come to 58 launches over the next eight years for ABL Space. In an industry where even a single launch contract often produces a news release, a contract for five dozen launches is unprecedented for a private company.

…The partnership will allow Lockheed, which builds large numbers of satellites for commercial customers, frequent and low-cost access to space. It is perhaps not a surprise that Lockheed selected ABL Space for its small launch needs, as Lockhead was an early investor in the launch company during a seed phase in 2019 and has continued to participate in additional rounds of fundraising. ABL has raised a total of $219 million to date.

Though Lockheed Martin is not ABL’s biggest investor, by being an early investor it has been involved in the development of ABL’s RS1 rocket from the start, which also means that Lockheed Martin was essentially buying its own rocket company to place the satellites it makes into orbit.

In fact, this decision falls into line with what appears to be Lockheed Martin’s long term corporate strategy. In 2017 the company opened its satellite-making factory with the satellites designed with standardized structures so that customers could pick and choose the design of their liking.

In 2018 it was revealed that the company was a key investor in Rocket Lab, while also participating in the creation of the United Kingdom’s first spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland.

It then decided to become a major investor in ABL, probably taking advantage of what it learned from Rocket Lab to improve the design. Now it plans to use that new rocket to launch a large number of the smallsats it is building in its factory.

Lockheed Martin is essentially copying SpaceX’s vertical integration strategy, whereby it owns or builds all aspects of its launch business. This allows it to reduce costs while controlling construction entirely. You cut out the middle man, and make your satellites cheaper to sell to others.

The first launch of ABL’s RS1 rocket was originally scheduled for the first half of this year, but has now been pushed back to the third quarter. If successful the company says it will follow it with two more launches before the end of the year, and very ambitious schedule.

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