Friday, May 1, 2020

NASA Downselects to Three Companies to Take Us Back to the Moon

Thursday, NASA announced the selection of three different contractors to begin initial development of lunar landing systems that will take astronauts back to the surface of the Moon by 2024.  The three companies and their approaches are rather different and NASA is betting that between them, in the words of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine:
"Between the three contractors I think NASA has everything it needs to be successful for the 2024 landing, and not just that, we have what is necessary for a sustainable lunar presence by 2028," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Ars. "We’re thrilled. Each one of these contractors brings not just unique designs, they’re bringing unique histories and unique philosophies toward development. All of that makes NASA better."
Most notable to me is that two out of three of the prime contractors are the “next generation” space contractors.  While several of the subcontractors are familiar names, it's interesting that they're in the sub-tier to these prime contractors.  Boeing was a known bidder on the contract, and as NASA's Chief of Human Spaceflight Ken Bowersox said last month, was not awarded any contract.
The awards, which cover a period of 10 months, were given to the following teams:
  • $579 million to the Blue Origin-led "National Team." Blue Origin will serve as the prime contractor, building the Blue Moon lunar lander as the "descent element" of the system, along with program management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance. Lockheed Martin will develop a reusable "ascent element" and lead crewed flight operations. Northrop Grumman will build the "transfer element," and Draper will lead descent guidance and provide flight avionics. It will launch on a New Glenn rocket.
  • $253 million to a Dynetics-led team. The company's proposal for a lunar lander is non-traditional and includes Sierra Nevada Corporation as a major partner. The ALPACA lander has a pair of drop tanks that are launched separately, which allow the main lander to be reused. These tanks are depleted and then jettisoned during descent. ALPACA could be launched on United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket.
  • $135 million to SpaceX. The company bid its Super Heavy rocket and Starship to carry humans to the Moon. The benefit of Starship is that if the vehicle is successful, it would offer NASA a low-cost, reusable solution for its needs.
From this cheap seat, I see Blue Origin and SpaceX as kind of opposite companies in an important way.  Blue Origin has yet to launch anything into orbit, instead working on developing engines, this moon lander, and plans for migrating people to colonies in Space.  They've developed and tested the New Glenn booster but have only done suborbital hops.  SpaceX, by contrast, planned to be in the launch business since the first days of the Falcon 1 just under 12 years ago.  Today, the Falcon 9 is the most experienced booster in the US.  Dynetics is a new one on me, and while they appear to be a Defense sector contractor, they have a Space Solutions webpage featuring several projects, not one of which has flown.

Getting back to the main story, NASA hasn't selected a final architecture for the first human landing mission of the Artemis Program and won't choose one until this 10 month study contract period is over.  For the rest of this year, NASA will assess the technical readiness of the various approaches to deliver both a lander to lunar orbit and the lander technology itself.
NASA is taking a two-pronged approach toward the Artemis program. The agency has a clear mandate from the White House to land humans on the Moon by 2024. This has been criticized by some as a "political" date, but supporters of the fast timeline say it has injected needed urgency into the program. At the same time, NASA also wants to avoid the pitfalls of the Apollo Program—which flew six missions to the Moon and then ended due to high costs—by designing Artemis to be sustainable for the long term.
In this scenario, SpaceX appears to be the wildcard - note they were awarded the least of the three, by a huge margin.  They didn't bid flights on the well-established Falcon Heavy, they bid Starship, which hasn't actually flown at all (nor has the New Glenn or ULA's Vulcan).  Administrator Bridenstine said they couldn't afford to overlook the possibility that Starship will be ready in time.
"SpaceX is really good at flying and testing—and failing and fixing," he said. "People are going to look at this and say, 'My goodness, we just saw Starship blow up again. Why are you giving them a contract?' The answer is because SpaceX is really good at iteratively testing and fixing. This is not new to them. They have a design here that, if successful, is going to be transformational. It’s going to drive down costs and it’s going to increase access, and it’s going to enable commercial activities that historically we’ve only dreamed about. I fully believe that Elon Musk is going to be successful. He is focused like a laser on these activities."

All three lunar landers: from left to right, Blue Origin's Integrated Lander, Dynetics ALPACA Lunar Lander, SpaceX's Starship lander.  All three listed as NASA images.


  1. So far, Blue Origins is all talk. I'll believe they can do something when they actually do it for the second time. Suborbital has been easy since 1943. Orbital is a tad bit harder.

    Dyanetics (purposeful misspelling,) seriously? Sierra Nevada has yet to do anything except test drops with their DreamChaser, which was supposed to be in space, what, 5 years ago? In reality, Dynetics looks to be a front for a moon-lander version of ULA. MLA? Moon Landing Alliance?

    I suspect that SpaceX will actually pull a serious weirdness and make a half-height Starship lander component. Though I really hope they do the whole 1940's sci-fi winged spaceship on the moon thing.

    In reality, I think only SpaceX will ever achieve anything close to the timeline. The others? No recent track records of success. So no reason to believe any of their advertising.

  2. Mr. Musk should see if the copyright has expired on Spaceship LUNA from "Destination Moon".

  3. testing to failure is how real rocketmen advance their crafts. the Russian RD-180 engines were successful because they ran literally hundreds to failure to find out what to fix all paid by the USSR. what's shocking about spacex is that there have be so few outright failures and their fixes have held true.
    blue origin seems to be a PR company. I keep getting mailings from them to buy stock.
    elon musk has a vision. ok. the guy and his companies live on the taxpayers dimes and quarters. whats he accomplished. launched a car into solar orbit with a dummy behind the wheel. I wonder if she is blonde. built electric cars that look good but are powered by coal burning power plants. Hmmm. still haven't figured out who to sue when I get run into by an autonomous automobile.
    so, these lunar ventures will no doubt be successful no matter how much it costs the tax payer. what's the payback for going to the moon again? because why??? If it is such a great idea why is it that private industry isn't doing this without the taxpayer footing the costs? If you want to go mine helium 3, knock yourself out. want to build that fusion power plant? sell stock and do it. just get your damn hands out of my wallet.

    1. The Mighty F-1 of Saturn V 1st Stage fame was developed from repeated failures. Which led to the rediscovery of baffles in the ignition chamber in order to stop eddies and pulses and all sorts of bad things happening.

  4. I tried to comment very early this morning after getting home from work. I was doing it on my tablet and accidentally brushed the back button, it is very sensitive, loosing my comment. Here goes trying to replicate my thoughts.

    Land on the Moon in 4 years? Neither Blue Origin's "National Team" or Dyanetics/Sierra Nevada have put payload into Earth orbit as a group. Part of the "National Team", Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman have so that gives them a advantage over Sierra Nevada's group. My money is on SpaceX in the long term.

    SpaceX is rapidly developing their basic Starship down in Boca Chica. From the way that they develop and some on Elon Musk's tweets about the Super Heavy booster, I would not be surprised to see a Starship boosted by a Super Heavy in orbit by the end of 2020. I think the modifications to build the Lunar Starship variant before 2024 are well within the bounds of SpaceX's capabilities. SpaceX may have already completed their planned Lunar Orbital flight in a manned Starship in 2023. The Lunar Starship would be essentially a complete Lunar Base. While NASA wants 2 people on the Moon in 2024, I think if it is Starship the crew will be larger. Maybe there is a leftover Lunar Rover from Apollo days that could be refurbished to provide surface transport?

    New thoughts:

    DrJim - I like that idea. There was a movie closer to 1960 that I vaguely remember seeing that had similar rockets. I think it was Japanese with aliens and Godzilla. They had X-15s as fighters against aliens and went to the Moon to finish them off. Do you have any inkling of idea about that movie?

    Capt Fast - Elon Musk is an ambitious entrepreneur. He used Tesla with the government subsidies as a way to get some of the funds for SpaceX. He was fulfilling a market for virtue signalers. The electric vehicles may not have immediate emissions but they are only about 10% efficient of the fuels used to generate electricity with their subsequent emissions. Solar and wind will not cut it to provide enough electricity for this Country; and the Greenies don't want nuclear power of any sort therefore no big program to develop nuclear fusion.

    SpaceX is the least funded of the three but in my estimation have the highest probability of succeeding.

    1. BillB - we're in pretty complete agreement. Blue Origin hasn't done much more than the Starship program has at this point. Starhopper went up 150 meters (500') moved a bit and then landed. Blue Origin has stretched that mission profile to 62 miles up, making it into space, albeit suborbital, with New Shepard.

      While I'm no fan of government subsidies for electric cars, Tesla has done nothing that GM, Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan and others have done. I don't see 1/1000th of the amount of vitriol aimed at those companies as I see aimed at Musk on every blog whenever his name comes up. Coincidence, I'm sure.

      When the feds are handing out money, companies line up for it. The problem is the feds not the companies.

      Tesla has made expensive cars for virtue signalers and brought the price of those cars down dramatically. The first Tesla I heard of was $100,000. The other day I did a search for the price on a Model 3 and the web said $35,000.

      Remember, it was a few years ago that a GM executive told reporters that he wanted GM to be the first to produce “electric cars that people can afford at a profit.” I wonder if Tesla is actually beating GM to be the first?

    2. That $35k Tesla is a web-only, direct order, and very hard to get. $40k is about as cheap as you'll get out of there, but even at $40k it's a good car.

      And I never thought I'd say that about a Tesla.

    3. My 11 year old Ford Exploder would have been north of $40k when it was new (I bought for well under half that it in '12). That's really not a 3 sigma price anymore.

      I saw a talking head with a new Tesla model this morning, saying they're unable to crank the factory up and get going thanks to the virus. What he said that caught my ears was 0-60 in something like 3.2 seconds. Electric motors are good at that.

  5. Dynetics is in the game because they hired a lot of NASA managers. The Dynetics CEO is Dave King, former NASA Director of Marshall Space Flight Center, before that he ran shuttle operations. Dynetics played the DoD contractor game of hiring high level govt officials and getting the inside scoop, then tailoring your work and proposal.