In a shock announcement, NASA has chosen to land a five-story skyscraper on the Moon. This is not hyperbole, NASA’s selection of the Spacex-designed Starship Lunar Lander, intended to place the first woman on the Moon, promises to up-end aerospace boardrooms around the globe. While the announcement itself comes as a welcome surprise, it also sends a clear message to a complacent industry…times have changed.
Public Private Partnership
NASA has had a great deal of success utilizing public/private partnerships in the past decade. These new partnerships are delivering capabilities faster and cheaper than the traditional method of government-micromanaged/cost-plus contracting.
The partnerships are successful because they combine government seed money with the engineering freedom to innovate, free from the political bureaucracy of NASA. Most importantly, the hardware that emerges will be subsidized by the nascent spaceflight industry outside of NASA itself. In other words, NASA has been gradually transitioning from a supplier to a buyer of spaceflight services.
An Unlikely Choice
In the drive to put the first woman on the Moon by 2024, NASA is expanding these partnerships to include the development of a new human Lunar lander that will take people to and from the Lunar surface. In that effort, in early 2020, NASA chose three finalists for the aptly-named Human Landing System competition, the Blue Origin-led National Team, Dynetics, and SpaceX.
The SpaceX Lunar Starship had been a dark horse in this race from the beginning. When comparing SpaceX’s design to its competitors, the first thing you will notice is its incredible size.
The Lunar Starship is so insanely tall that it requires elevators for astronauts to step onto the Lunar surface. Further, its main engines are so overpowered that it will kick up enormous plumes of lunar dust during takeoff and landing, presenting very real challenges for engineers.
In the first round of selections, NASA awarded initial seed money to all three companies. But the addition of SpaceX, who received by far the smallest award, seemed like a throwaway decision. To many, it appeared that SpaceX purposely undercut competitors in price to give them a chance at selection, despite being the most “risky” and unconventional.
In the year that has passed since the first selection round, Congress has provided the HLS program a fraction of expected funding. This fact has worked in SpaceX’s favor. Pricing became a paramount consideration for cash-strapped NASA.
While it is NASA’s preference to fund two systems for dissimilar redundancy, it turned out, that under the current budget, NASA couldn’t afford to fund any of the landers, let alone two. SpaceX was the only bid in the ballpark of affordability. As a result, with some renegotiation on the particulars, SpaceX was awarded the sole contract.
Not Only Cheaper
But the HLS selection report revealed something surprising, Starship wasn’t chosen only because it was cheapest, it was also the best design paired with the best overall bid.
The Dynetics lander, was notably overweight, with insufficient plans to address this mass problem. This issue, paired with the highest price tag, disqualified Dynetics from consideration.
The Blue Origin bid also had its share of technical challenges. Further, at $6 Billion, it was twice the price of SpaceX and, somewhat embarrassingly, asked for development money up front, in clear violation of the competition’s rules.
This begs the question, was asking for money up front an oversight at Blue Origin? Or perhaps an arrogant expectation that the government would bend the rules to accommodate a private contractor, as was routine for decades?
The Starship’s enormous size, however, counter intuitively, provides certain advantages. The extra fuel reserves provide more abort modes should something go awry en route to the Lunar surface. Further, equipped with not one, but two airlocks, with independent life support systems, NASA reasoned that the SpaceX design was safer compared to the competition.
The Starship’s large size and relatively low price make it flexible and affordable enough for long-term use on the Moon, either by NASA or the nascent commercial space industry. Or as NASA eloquently puts it:
“It is NASA’s vision that the HLS capability demonstrated in the first mission to the lunar surface will evolve into a sustainable commercial transportation system that will enable frequent access to the lunar surface for NASA and other customers. “
Blue Origin’s and Dynetic’s landers are simply not large enough to accommodate anything except the bare minimum needed to achieve NASA’s short-term goals. They lack the volume and mass reserves required for flexibility in mission use and are therefore not viable for sustainable human spaceflight beyond NASA’s initial procurement.
A Message to a Stodgy Industry
For conservative and cautious NASA, the selection of Starship has sent shock waves throughout the industry. Undoubtedly, boardrooms at Blue Origin, Dynetics, and other industry giants let out collective gasps at the announcement.
But NASA’s signal to the industry is clear and very much overdue. First, the days of submitting overpriced bids under the expectation that government will pick always up the tab, are over. Contractors are expected to share the cost and risk.
Second, small specialized equipment meticulously designed to barely hit performance targets are not sustainable options going forward. They are not flexible for long-term human exploration, and not useful to the growing private space industry that NASA seeks to nurture.
NASA’s message is unmistakable. From now on, go big or go home.
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