Gateway already behind schedule and mismanaged

Surprise, Surprise! According to a report by NASA’s inspector general released today [pdf], the agency’s Lunar Gateway space station project is already behind schedule, will likely not be available for any 2024 Artemis lunar mission, and apparently has been mismanaged in a manner that is raising costs.

Many of the problems appear to have been caused by NASA’s abrupt decision, ten months after awarding its contracts to Maxar and Northrop Grumman to build respectively the station’s service (PPE) and habitation (HALO) modules, to require that they both be launched on a single rocket, rather than separate launches as originally planned. From the report:

The decision to launch the PPE and HALO together, while avoiding the cost of a second commercial launch vehicle, has contributed to cost increases due to the redesign of several components, an elevated launch risk, and a longer duration flight to lunar orbit. In addition, due to the decision Maxar was forced to terminate its subcontract with Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) for PPE launch services, even though Maxar had already paid SpaceX approximately $27.5 million for this service, a portion of which was paid by NASA prior to the termination. Further, a co-manifested launch increases risk because together the elements may be too heavy for commercially available rockets or too long for the rocket’s fairing, potentially impacting intended spacecraft mass, length, and other requirements.

While the Trump administration had already made the decision to not rely on Gateway for its hoped-for 2024 manned lunar landing, it still hoped to have it available for use. This now appears unlikely. The report today is very clear: “Gateway likely will not be in a position to support a 2024 lunar landing.”

None of this is really a surprise. If anything, it is a feature of Gateway, not a bug. The program was always intended as a big jobs program, funneling money to NASA contractors who would in turn set up operations in various important congressional districts. Like SLS and Orion, it is more important that the program get delayed while costing more than actually accomplish anything.

Even if a Biden administration (still not confirmed) takes over and decides to support this project (which I think will happen), do not expect it to take place as scheduled. At best, Gateway will not be operational for years yet, and in fact it could take until the ’30s to get it built and launched. And that slow and expensive schedule will be exactly what our corrupt politicians and government bureaucrats want.

Meanwhile, China will be setting up its bases on the Moon. And maybe so will SpaceX using Starship.

NASA and ESA ink Lunar Gateway deal

NASA yesterday announced that it has signed a deal with the European Space Agency (ESA) outlining their partnership in building the Lunar Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon.

Under this agreement, ESA will contribute habitation and refueling modules, along with enhanced lunar communications, to the Gateway. The refueling module also will include crew observation windows. In addition to providing the hardware, ESA will be responsible for operations of the Gateway elements it provides. ESA also provides two additional European Service Modules (ESMs) for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. These ESMs will propel and power Orion in space on future Artemis missions and provide air and water for its crew.

For some reason NASA’s press release makes no mention of what ESA gets from the deal. From this news report:

[ESA] said it will receive “three flight opportunities for European astronauts to travel to and work on the Gateway” as part of the agreement.

I also note that there is no mention of the Artemis Accords in this agreement. As far as I can tell, right now the only ESA member who has signed on is the United Kingdom, and I am not sure of the UK’s status in the ESA considering their exit from the European Union. The two are different political deals, but exiting one might affect the other.

The Trump administration has said repeatedly that it will only partner in its lunar ambitions with countries that sign the accords. However, at this moment Congress has simply not funded those ambitions, so NASA needs partners to get things built. Moreover, Orion is a space capsule (costing about $18 billion and taking 20 years to build) that does not have a service module to provide it air and water. Europe provides that, and had only agreed to build two.

It might be that NASA has traded the accords away to get Europe’s help for both Gateway and Orion. This deal, announced now, might also be an effort by NASA (and Europe) to lobby Congress to fork up the cash.

Northrop Grumman wins contract to build Gateway habitation module

Capitalism in space: NASA on June 5 awarded Northrop Grumman the contract to design and build the habitation module for the agency’s proposed Lunar Gateway space station.

NASA said it issued a contract to Northrop Grumman valued at $187 million for the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module, which will serve as an initial habitat for crews visiting the lunar Gateway. The module, described by NASA as the size of a small studio apartment, will be able to support short stays by crews arriving on Orion spacecraft.

The contract does not cover all the work needed for HALO. Instead, the award announced June 5 funds design of the module through a preliminary design review late this year. The contract also allows Northrop Grumman to issue subcontracts for hardware with long lead times. A contract modification will come later to fund full development and testing of HALO.

And why might that contract only award “design” money? It is because the Lunar Gateway, as far as I know, has still never been approved by Congress. It remains still the dream of NASA and its bureaucrats, now with the political support of the Trump administration (who have fortunately revised and de-emphasized its place within the agency’s entire manned lunar program).

In the end I suspect NASA will get that Congressional approval, but when it does it will signal once again how political power in the U.S. has devolved from elected officials, put their by the citizens of the country to be in charge, to unelected bureaucrats within the military-industrial complex in DC. And I say this recognizing that as revised by the Trump administration, Gateway might actually make some sense now.

Boeing’s fall from grace at NASA

Eric Berger at Ars Technica yesterday uncovered a NASA report that outlined its selection process for awarding a contract for providing cargo to the agency’s proposed Lunar Gateway space station — eventually won by SpaceX — that gave Boeing’s proposal a terrible ranking.

Of the four contenders, [Boeing] had the lowest overall technical and mission suitability scores. In addition, Boeing’s proposal was characterized as “inaccurate” and possessing no “significant strengths.” Boeing also was cited with a “significant weakness” in its proposal for pushing back on providing its software source code.

Due to its high price and ill-suited proposal for the lunar cargo contract, NASA didn’t even consider the proposal among the final bidders. In his assessment late last year, NASA’s acting chief of human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, wrote, “Since Boeing’s proposal was the highest priced and the lowest rated under the Mission Suitability factor, while additionally providing a conditional fixed price, I have decided to eliminate Boeing from further award consideration.” [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words could possibly be a death sentence for Boeing. The company has numerous other serious problems, including its commercial 737-Max airplane, its KC-46 Pegasus tanker for the Air Force, and of course its SLS rocket for NASA. For NASA to say that it will no longer consider Boeing in future contract bidding, especially since NASA has been one of Boeing’s biggest customers for decades, cannot be good for the company’s already badly suffering bottom line.

Berger also notes how much NASA’s attitude toward Boeing has changed since the agency removed Bill Gerstenmaier as head of its manned space operations. Gerstenmaier had apparently given Boeing the highest marks routinely, and appeared to have lost his ability to look at the company objectively. Moreover, his (and NASA’s) kid-glove treatment of Boeing for decades probably contributed to that company’s sloppy bid on the Lunar Gateway cargo contract. They were likely not used to tough questioning, and didn’t put the proper effort into writing their bid.

For the taxpayer and the American space effort, however, this report is wonderful news. It appears that NASA is breaking its tight and blind partnership with the big space contractors that has for decades handicapped the nation’s ability to get things built in space. These contractors have not been able to deliver, but because of their powerful allies on Congress, NASA has for years kowtowed to them in contract awards.

Now however it appears NASA’s management has become quite willing to reject these powerful companies, despite Congressional backing, in order to get the best deal and the best product, for the nation.

NASA awards SpaceX deal to provide cargo to Gateway

Capitalism in space: Should NASA ever decide to build its proposed Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon (the odds of which have gone down recently), it announced today that it has signed a deal with SpaceX to use its Falcon Heavy rocket and an upgraded larger version of its Dragon capsule to ship cargo to that station.

The deal calls for at least two missions, and is SpaceX’s first deal in NASA’s Artemis program.

This deal is a major blow to SLS and Boeing, which up to now had a monopoly on all launches to supply and launch Gateway. In fact, Gateway was invented by Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and NASA (not Congress) in order to justify SLS’s existence. That NASA has now decided it is better off using the much cheaper and already operational Falcon Heavy for some Gateway missions suggests that SLS is increasingly vulnerable to cancellation. NASA is making it obvious that other commercial options exist. No need to wait years and spend billions for SLS, when they can go now, for much less.

Sierra Nevada unveils full scale Gateway habitat module prototype

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada yesterday unveiled a full scale prototype of a habitable module that it developed under a NASA contract for the agency’s proposed Lunar Gateway space station.

[The module] measures more than 8 meters long, and with a diameter of 8 meters has an internal volume of 300 cubic meters, which is about one-third the size of the International Space Station.

Sierra Nevada developed this full-scale prototype under a NASA program that funded several companies to develop habitats that could be used for a space station in orbit around the Moon, as well as potentially serving as living quarters for a long-duration transit to and from Mars. As part of the program, NASA astronauts have, or will, spend three days living in and evaluating the prototypes built by Sierra Nevada, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Bigelow Aerospace.

The selling point for Sierra Nevada’s habitat is its size, which is possible because the multi-layered fabric material can be compressed for launch, then expanded and outfitted as a habitat once in space. It can fit within a standard payload fairing used for launch vehicles such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan booster, or NASA’s Space Launch System. It is light enough for any of those rockets to launch to the Moon.

What we are seeing here is the unfolding of the Washington lobbying game to guarantee Gateway gets funded and built. NASA is spreading its available Gateway cash around to multiple companies, who will now have a vested interest in lobbying Congress to get this lunar space station funded and built.

The one very good component of this lobbying process is that NASA is not doing the building or the designing. It is hiring private companies, which means the project will act to stimulate the American aerospace industry. Moreover, it is leaving the ownership of the spacecraft and the decision on what launch vehicle to use to the companies, which means this cannot be used as a lever to fund the SLS boondoggle. Under this arrangement more will get done faster for less.

Even so, Lunar Gateway will mostly act to slow the United States’ effort to colonize the solar system. We will be spending our government space dollars on an orbiting lunar space station, thus generally trapping us in orbit, as we watch China, India, Russia and others land and explore the surface.

There is only one way Gateway could possibly be beneficial to the United States. NASA gets it built fast and cheaply, so that it then can be used as a jumping off point for further exploration. This would give the U.S. capabilities in space that far exceed other countries.

My fear is that NASA has a terrible track record in the past half century of doing anything fast or cheaply. Instead, NASA projects like Gateway end up taking forever and costing many times their initial proposed budget. SLS is a perfect poster child for this. Its goal is not so much to launch as to provide Congress endless pork.

NASA awards Maxar Gateway power/communications contract

The never-ending boondoggle: NASA this week awarded the company Maxar its first official Lunar Gateway contract to develop the power, propulsion, and communications systems for the station.

Interestingly, the contract is structured somewhat similar to the commercial contracts for ISS cargo and crew.

This firm-fixed price award includes an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity portion and carries a maximum total value of $375 million. The contract begins with a 12-month base period of performance and is followed by a 26-month option, a 14-month option and two 12-month options.

Spacecraft design will be completed during the base period, after which the exercise of options will provide for the development, launch, and in-space flight demonstration. The flight demonstration will last as long as one year, during which the spacecraft will be fully owned and operated by Maxar. Following a successful demonstration, NASA will have the option to acquire the spacecraft for use as the first element of the Gateway. NASA is targeting launch of the power and propulsion element on a commercial rocket in late 2022. [emphasis mine]

It is fixed-price, and Maxar will own the design with the ability to sell it to others as well as NASA.

The problem is that Maxar will not be building something that others might want. Their only customer will be NASA, and the design will be focused entirely to NASA’s needs in building their Gateway boondoggle. I am pessimistic anything productive for the future of space travel will come from this.

Moreover, the highlighted words reveal the corrupt nature of this deal. Development could go on forever, and should it do so, do not be surprised if the contract’s fixed price nature gets changed.

Our federal government, including NASA, is very corrupt. They are not interested in the nation’s interest, only the interests of themselves and the contractors they work hand-in-glove with in DC.

Trump seeks $1.6 billion more for NASA, cuts money to Gateway

The Trump administration, in order to support its desire to accomplish a lunar landing by 2024, is requesting a $1.6 billion increase in NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2020. The key detail however is this:

NASA shortly thereafter published a summary of its budget amendment, which calls for nearly $1.9 billion in new funding for developing lunar landers and accelerating work on the Space Launch System and Orion. It would also go towards exploration technology development and additional science missions to the moon. That increase would be offset by cutting funding for the lunar Gateway by $321 million, reflecting the agency’s plan for only a “minimal” Gateway needed to support a 2024 landing.

In other words, in total Trump wants $1.6 billion more. The good news: He is de-emphasizing Gateway in his future plans. This might even lead to its cancellation as a project.

The bad news? He is pumping more money into SLS/Orion. However, this might not be that bad, when one considers how our bankrupt Washington government functions. Trump doesn’t have the political backing to cut SLS/Orion outright. Instead this proposal is that project’s Hail Mary pass for a touchdown. While private efforts continue to mature to develop cheaper rockets and manned capsules, SLS/Orion will have this one last chance to finally prove itself. If it finds it can’t get it done, and those private options show that they can, then Trump might finally be able to harness the political will in our dumb Congress to dump SLS/Orion.

And if SLS/Orion does succeed? The victory will likely still be a Pyrrhic one. SLS/Orion will still be too expensive and too slow to do much else but a single lunar landing, a stunt much like Apollo, with far less long term possibilities. Meanwhile, those private efforts will continue to develop. By 2024 a switch by NASA to private enterprise and competition will still make sense anyway, even if SLS/Orion gives the nation a spectacular lunar landing.

This action indicates that the Trump administration is paying attention to these matters. They are creating a situation that will put them in a strong negotiating position to get what they want, for the nation. One way or the other, we will be heading back to the Moon.

One minor detail: NASA has chosen “Artemis” as the name for its project to land on the Moon by 2020.

Bridenstine also … announce[d] that this 2024 lunar landing mission will be named Artemis, after the sister of Apollo and the Greek goddess of the moon. “I think it is very beautiful that, 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man and the first woman to the moon.”

No one should be fooled by this. Apollo was a full program, with a well-thought slate of missions designed to get us to the Moon quickly. This SLS/Orion project is still an off the cuff mishmash, with only two or three flights at most, and without much of a plan behind those flights. It has been and continues to be an improvised mess.

Canada commits to NASA’s Lunar Gateway boondoggle

Canada’s leftwing government has agreed to be NASA’s first official international partner in the agency’s Lunar Gateway project, designed to go nowhere and cost billions.

Canada has become the first nation to formally commit to NASA’s lunar Gateway project with a financial contribution to cover a 24-year period and the development of a new generation robotic Canadarm.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement Wednesday that Canada would be partnering with NASA and spending 2 billion Canadian dollars ($1.4 billion) over 24 years on the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway program, a human-tended facility in orbit around the moon, as well as other space programs. The announcement included funding of 150 million Canadian dollars over five years for a new Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program to help small and medium-sized businesses develop new technologies to be used and tested in lunar orbit and on the moon’s surface in fields that include artificial intelligence, robotics and health.

Canada will develop and contribute a smart robotic system – Canadarm3 – that will repair and maintain the Gateway, Trudeau announced.

I wonder if this Canadian program will survive a new rightwing administration. Such boondoggles often don’t, or get reshaped into something completely different.

Of course, this question assumes a truly rightwing government might someday retake power in Canada.

We are now entering a new cold war. This time the battle lines are not between the capitalist west and a communist Soviet bloc, but between the socialist big governments across the globe and the capitalist free citizenry struggling to survive independently under the thumb of those increasingly oppressive governments.

We can see this clearly in space. While big government space agencies in the U.S., Europe, Russia, and Canada are teaming up to get coerced government funding for Gateway (even as they work to simultaneously squelch any competing space exploration visions), private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the new smallsat companies strive to launch their own private endeavors, using profits and any available investment capital they can convince others to freely provide them.

The big government space programs will spend a lot of money taken involuntarily, wield power to maintain their dominance, and likely accomplish relatively little for all that power and money. The small private efforts, if allowed to do what they want to do, will spend comparatively little capital (voluntarily committed to them), work very efficiently, and likely get a lot more done. The key is whether the former will allow the latter the freedom to operate.

Sadly, the track records of powerful government throughout the history of the world leaves me very pessimistic about this coming cold war. Those governments will quite likely use its growing unchecked power to squelch any competition, especially competition that makes them look foolish.

We have already seen this happen somewhat at NASA with its commercial crew program. Unless the public starts voting for politicians that favor them over the government — something that public simply hasn’t done for more than a century — I can only see this government dominance grow and worsen.