SpaceX’s upgraded spacecraft ready for test flight despite NASA contract losers

Over the past week, as SpaceX has worked diligently to prepare an improved prototype spacecraft for its first launch, former competitors Blue Origin and Dynetics – who recently lost a landmark NASA lunar lander contract with SpaceX – filed “protests” and forced the space agency to freeze work (and funds).

This means that NASA is now legally unable to use funds or resources related to its Human Lander System (HLS) program or the $ 2.9 billion contract it awarded SpaceX on April 16 to develop a Starship variant to bring humanity back to the Moon. However, just as SpaceX has already devoted a great deal of its time and money to the development of Starship and – more recently – to a series of quick launches, the company doesn’t seem to intend to let sore losers get in the way. factory or its rocket test. countryside.

Instead, in the same two days, Blue Origin and Dynetics made official protests aloud to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), SpaceX performed two consecutive static fire tests with a prototype spacecraft. and Raptor engines equipped with “hundreds of upgrades.” “Technical challenges and unsavory weather conditions forced SpaceX to cancel a launch scheduled for last week, but the company now appears to be on track to launch the Starship SN15 prototype as early as Tuesday, May 4.

In principle, the ability of companies to protest US government contracting decisions is a necessity and (theoretically) a net good, but it can easily be misused – and often detrimental. In the case of Blue Origin and Dynetics, it’s hard not to perceive the two protests as examples of the latter.

Blue Origin effectively disagrees with every major point made and conclusion drawn by NASA’s Source Selection Authority (Kathy Lueders) and a separate panel of experts – often to the point where the company strongly implies that it understands better. NASA’s procurement process as the space agency. himself. Blue Origin partners Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are both partially or fully responsible for several of their own catastrophic acquisition boondoggles (F-35, Orion, SLS, James Webb Space Telescope, and part of the military industrial complex primarily responsible for transforming US military and aerospace procurement into the quagmire of political interests, quasi-monopolies and loopholes that it is today.

The main argument is generally shared by the two protesters. In essence, Dynetics [p. 23; PDF] and blue origin [PDF] felt that it was unfair or inappropriate for NASA to select only one supplier from the three competing companies or groups. They argue that under-selecting to one supplier instead of budget deficits changed the procurement process and the competition so much that NASA should have effectively taken it out of service and restarted the entire five-month process. Blue Origin and Dynetics also both imply that they were somehow blinded by NASA’s concerns about a congressional funding gap.

In reality, NASA could hardly have been any clearer that it was exceptionally sensitive to HLS funding and extremely motivated to attempt to bring humans back to the moon by 2024 with or without the full support of Congress. – but in fewer words. As Lueders herself noted in the HLS Option A award selection statement, the Blue, Dynetics and SpaceX solicitation responded to states – word for word – that “the total number of awards will depend on the availability of funding and of the results of the evaluation ”.

Further, the implications that NASA has somehow blinded bidders with its lack of funding are sadly ignorant at best and consciously dishonest at worst. Anyone with the slightest awareness of the history of NASA’s large-scale programs would know that the space agency’s budget is almost exclusively determined by Congress each year, and likely to change just as frequently if the political winds change. Unless you blackmail members of Congress or nostalgically hope that other avenues of legal political influence and partnership actually lead to the desired funding and priorities appearing in credit legislation, NASA knows the future. of their budget as well as anyone else with Internet access and a rudimentary awareness of history and current affairs.

It became clear that Congress risked significantly underfunding NASA’s HLS program as early as November 2020 – weeks before the deadline for Option A HLS proposals. The final appropriation bill passed on January 3, 2021, providing NASA $ 850 million of the ~ $ 3.4 billion requested for HLS. Historically, NASA’s experience with the Commercial Crew Program – public knowledge accessible to all – likely showed the agency that it could not trust Congress to fund its priorities in good faith when a half -Decade of drastic underfunding ultimately delayed the critical program by several years. This damage was caused simply by reduce by half NASA’s commercial crew budget request from 2010 to 2013, when Congress was already on the path to providing barely a trimester HLS funds requested by NASA in the weeks leading up to the deadline for the lunar lander proposals.

Ultimately, the protests filed by Blue Origin and Dynetics are met to the brim with a little ax grinding, attempts to paint SpaceX in a negative light, and a general lack of indication that either. companies operates in good faith. Instead, their protests seem almost doomed while simultaneously forcing NASA to freeze HLS work and delay related disbursements for up to 100 days. Given that SpaceX is now technically working to design, build, qualify, and pilot an unequipped lunar spacecraft prototype by 2023 and a crewed demonstration landing by 2024, 100 days is 7-10% of the time available to complete. this extraordinary task. .

Ironically, protests from Blue Origin and Dynetics have already helped demonstrate why NASA’s decision – especially in light of unambiguous budget cuts – to give SpaceX its HLS Moon landing contract was a smart move. Had Blue Origin or victorious Dynetics been in a similar position to SpaceX, it’s almost impossible to imagine either team continuing to work in any meaningful way instead of funding or directing the NASA. SpaceX, on the other hand, hasn’t missed a beat and looks set to continue development, production, and testing of Starship around the clock, regardless of NASA’s ability to help.

In other words, hopefully the actual impact on the schedule of a maximum of 100 working days and a funding freeze should be a tiny fraction of what it might have been if the NASA had selected an HLS provider more interested in profit margins and share buybacks than creating a sustainable path for humanity’s expansion beyond Earth.

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