SpaceX protests ULA's launch contract with NASA for ULA – Spaceflight Now


Archival photo of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket inside the company hangar, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, Florida. Credit: NASA / Kim Shiflett

SpaceX filed a protest contesting a nearly $ 150 million contract signed by NASA with United Launch Alliance last month for sending a robotic probe of asteroids into space .

The protest submitted to the Government Accountability Office on Feb. 11 challenges a contract to launch NASA's Lucy Science Mission to United Launch Alliance. NASA announced on January 31 that ULA had won the contract to launch the Lucy mission, which was scheduled to take off in October 2021 from Cape Canaveral aboard ULA's Atlas 5 rocket.

SpaceX said in a statement that it could launch Lucy's mission for less than $ 148.3 million granted to ULA, a 50/50 joint venture between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

"Since SpaceX started launching missions for NASA, it's the first time that the company has challenged one of the agency's award decisions," said a spokesman. SpaceX in a statement. "SpaceX offered a highly confident solution to the success of its mission at a price that was considerably lower than the grant amount. We are therefore convinced that the decision to pay much more to Boeing and Lockheed for the same mission was therefore not in the best interest of the agency or the company. US taxpayers. "

NASA confirmed the protest, saying the agency issued a stop order for the Lucy mission after SpaceX filed with GAO. In response to a request from Spaceflight Now, a NASA spokesman later clarified that the stop work order only had an impact on Lucy's launch contract, and not on D & D. Other work related to the mission. a researcher based at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

In a statement announcing the launch contract last month, ULA said NASA had chosen the Atlas 5 rocket for the Lucy mission after an "evaluation of launch orders for competitive launch services" by the launch service program of the space agency. ULA's Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets are certified for launching NASA's robotics interplanetary science missions alongside SpaceX's Falcon 9 launcher. Both companies are expected to submit bids for each job competition managed by the Launch Services Program.

NASA chose the ULA Atlas 5 variant without any powerful thrusters – known as the "401" vehicle configuration – for the Lucy mission. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket can also send the Lucy shuttle on its interplanetary trajectory, assuming that the Falcon 9 is dedicated to launch, leaving no fuel reserves to land on the first leg, whether on land or in the air. sea.

Lucy will meet seven asteroids during her 12-year mission, beginning with a main asteroid, then passing through swarms of small objects that guide Jupiter into its orbit around the sun. Lucy will be the first mission to visit this family of asteroids, called Trojans, locked in Jupiter-like orbits.

Scientists believe that Trojan asteroids represent a diverse sample of the types of small planetary building blocks that populated the solar system after its formation 4.5 billion years ago. Read our previous article for more details on the scientific objectives of the mission.

The Lucy satellite is expected to weigh no more than 1,435 kg at launch, with the fuel loaded, according to Levison, the chief scientist of the mission.

"ULA participated in an open competition for NASA's Lucy spacecraft and was honored to be awarded this important scientific mission," the company said in a statement. "This interplanetary mission has an extremely narrow launch window to reach all desired planetary bodies and achieve scientific goals. If Lucy misses this launch window, the mission can not be completed for decades. "

Photo archive of a United Launch Alliance 5 Atlas rocket on its launch pad in Florida. Credit: NASA / Kenneth Allen

ULA extolled its "time certainty" record when officials announced Lucy's launch contract last month, highlighting the Atlas 5 launch record, or at least close to its initial launch date.

"We could not be happier than NASA chose ULA to launch this incredible global science mission," said Tory Bruno, president and CEO of ULA, in a statement on Jan. 31. "This mission has a unique planetary launch window in its life, and the certainty of Atlas 5, a world leader, combined with our reliability and performance, has provided the optimal vehicle for this mission."

Lucy's launch window opens on October 16, 2021 and lasts about 20 days. The launch will place Lucy in a heliocentric orbit around the sun and the probe will return to the Earth's surroundings one year after takeoff – in October 2022 – to use the gravity of the planet to sling into the outer solar system. .

A chance alignment of Lucy's asteroid targets will allow the mission to visit seven objects – including a binary asteroid – until 2033, giving scientists access to a wide range of Trojan asteroids, supposed to be icy relics left behind by the formation. planets.

"Lucy's target orbits are literally aligning to make the mission work," Levison said. "So there is a unique trajectory for the spacecraft, and therefore a very specific launch period. It is possible for us to launch about a year later during what would have been the first (gravitational assistance of the Earth) of our nominal trajectory.

"This would preserve our list of goals as we embark on the same trajectory, but this is not optimal for several reasons," Levison said.

If takeoff slowed down until 2022, a more powerful pitcher would be needed to give Lucy the boost needed to make up for the speed imparted during the ground gravity assistance maneuver, according to Levison.

NASA said that she "was always aware of her mission program," but a spokeswoman declined to comment further on the ongoing litigation.

The Government Accountability Office has until May 22 to rule on SpaceX's contractual protest.

According to the GAO's own statistics, the Bureau received 15% of the contract claims in fiscal year 2018. In this case, the GAO recommends that corrective measures be taken with federal agencies to resolve the issues raised by the event. . The recommended corrective actions may include the termination of a contract, a new solicitation or a new contest for the contract in question, as well as the reimbursement of the claimant's costs for the filing of the dispute with the GAO and the preparation of its initial bid. .

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.

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