NASA, Blue Origin and SpaceX fail to agree on ratings of lunar flights – Quartz

What is preventing the United States from returning to the moon? An argument over pre-flight meetings.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he could not confirm his intention to return Americans to the moon by 2024 until a lawsuit against the space agency, brought by the company. space by Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin, be resolved. The lawsuit argues that NASA should not have chosen Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build a lander that will transport astronauts to the lunar surface.

Specifically, the suit relies on “flight readiness reviews”, or FRRs, which are comprehensive information on all aspects of a space mission. They take place shortly before a launch and represent the final approval to move forward with a mission.

These meetings are important because of the relationship between NASA and its contractors. The agency uses the public-private partnership model of giving limited advice to entrepreneurs and paying them a fixed price. Since the agency does not do as much substantive design work, FRRs provide a key oversight opportunity.

Bezos and the company say SpaceX is risking the safety of astronauts because it won’t do enough of these exams. Musk says that “we are still doing flight readiness exams.”

Who is right ?

The debate is driven by SpaceX’s lunar lander concept

NASA’s plan to get to the moon is to launch astronauts into a spaceship called the Orion. Unlike the Apollo missions, when the astronauts brought a lander with them, the next generation of moon explorers will encounter a separate lander vehicle orbit above the moon, which will send them back and forth to the surface in below. NASA has asked private companies to build it.

SpaceX offered its most recent vehicle, a large spacecraft called the Starship. To do this, SpaceX will need to refuel the orbiting spacecraft before going to the moon and back; this will require the launch of fourteen “oil” vessels and another spacecraft, the description of which is in public documents, but which is widely regarded as a sort of propellant repository. (All of these launches are necessary because of the amount of propellant large spacecraft need to break free from Earth’s gravity.)

The plan is to fly Starship into orbit, refuel, and then meet the astronauts in lunar orbit. And, according to the Government Accountability Organization, SpaceX proposed to NASA that there be a pre-launch flight readiness exam of the spacecraft used to transport astronauts; the rest of the refueling infrastructure would already be in orbit and no astronauts would be on board the spacecraft until they actually encountered them in deep space.

Two competing offerings, one from a consortium led by Blue Origin and the other from an Alabama company called Dynetics, offered smaller, more traditional lunar landers, which only require one launch before launching. meet the astronauts.

NASA hoped to pick two contractors to build lunar landers, but only received funding from Congress to pick one. The space agency ultimately selected SpaceX’s proposal, saying it was the cheapest and most technically sound. But, still according to GAO, NASA officials have asked SpaceX to add two more FRRs to its plan, so that each type of vehicle is reviewed before launch – one review for tankers, one for filing. potential and one for the spaceship. who will transport the astronauts.

Does SpaceX do reviews for every launch, or just three for 16 launches?

The other two contractors challenged the decision in the GAO. Protesters argued that because NASA did not require an FRR before each SpaceX launch, the company was receiving an unfair advantage. The GAO agreed that NASA was not sticking to the original wording of its proposal when it allowed SpaceX to have three reviews, but said that did not change the course of the contract and rejected the challenge. Blue Origin has now taken the dispute to federal court.

Here’s where the mystery comes in: SpaceX distributed a backgrounder to lawmakers, whose decisions about funding NASA will influence the agency’s choices, stating that “SpaceX will lead – and always has plans to – lead a FRR with the full knowledge and participation of NASA before each launch of Starship HLS. Elon Musk also tweeted that “We always do flight readiness exams! This argument makes no sense.

If so, perhaps the lawyers SpaceX hired to present their case to GAO should be concerned that they might not be able to convey this. SpaceX did not respond to questions attempting to distinguish between Musk’s argument and GAO’s assessment of the contract.

To interpret the difference between GAO’s three FRRs and SpaceX’s claim that the company always does flight readiness exams, you need to analyze the semantics: the other goes. SpaceX has always intended to have an FRR for this specific vehicle.

SpaceX appears to be arguing that the tanker spacecraft and potential fuel depot is infrastructure that NASA doesn’t need to worry about as much about, while the vehicle that will actually transport astronauts deserves further consideration. In an unsealed court file today, lawyers for the company argued that “support spacecraft” did not fall under the FRR requirements outlined in NASA’s RFP.

New visions of space transportation mean new rules

The FRR argument primarily reflects the ambition of SpaceX’s plans relative to its rivals. Blue Origin and Dynetics only offered one launch to bring their much smaller landing vehicles to the moon, with only one pre-flight review each.

This is, in part, why the GAO rejected their challenge: It was not clear why SpaceX received an advantage by having one or more flight readiness exams, as there was no way for NASA to waive the only examination prior to the possible launch of the demonstrators. had planned their own systems.

SpaceX’s latest filing indicates that NASA expressly gave bidders “the freedom to come up with a different architecture,” and the company did. All the meeting madness delaying NASA plans doesn’t seem to reach the level of contempt for security, as Blue Origin claims, but we won’t know until the trial is over and all the facts are known. .

While much of the court record is sealed, parties are currently debating what type of documents the judge will consider, with Blue Origin seeking emails from NASA and other documents and SpaceX claiming these additional documents are unnecessary. Once the administrative file is settled, a judge will determine if Bleu’s challenge is founded.

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Travis Durham

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