Today’s Tidbits: August 19, 2019

Today’s Tidbits: August 19, 2019

Here are’s tidbits for August 19, 2019.  We have some catching up to do so there are more than usual, everything from ULA winning contracts for its new Vulcan Centaur to Newt Gingrich proposing an alternative to Artemis to tardigrades on the Moon.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

ULA Wins Two Commercial Contracts for Its New Vulcan Centaur Rocket

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is building a new rocket, Vulcan. It will replace its venerable Atlas V, which uses Russian RD-180 engines, a matter of great controversy a few years ago that ended with a requirement that ULA cease using them in the early 2020s.

For Vulcan, ULA will use Blue Origin’s BE-4 liquid oxygen/liquid methane engines. It will continue to use Centaur as an upper stage.  A major market for the Vulcan Centaur is national security launches. The company must successfully complete two launches to be certified by the Air Force.

In the past week, ULA has won contracts for what it will launch on those two certification flights.  The first flight will send Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander to the lunar surface.  Astrobotic won a Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract from NASA to launch a mission that will include several NASA payloads plus payloads for other customers by July 2021.

Vulcan is a big rocket that can put 7,400-15,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit.  Peregrine is quite a small spacecraft, just 1,313 kilograms wet mass (including payloads and propellant). Presumably other not-yet-announced payloads will be on the same flight.

The second certification flight will deliver Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC’s) Dream Chaser cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station.  SNC won six launches in the second round of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS2) competition in 2016.  Dream Chaser looks like a small space shuttle. SNC hopes to use it for crews in the future, but it did not win one of NASA’s commercial crew contracts.

Meanwhile, Blue Origin just did a test of the BE-4 engine and tweeted a photo.

Blue Origin Protests NSSL Procurement

Though they are working together on Vulcan, Blue Origin and ULA are competitors for future launches in the Air Force’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program.  The Air Force is currently in the process of selecting launch service providers for the years 2022-2026.

In addition to providing the engines for ULA’s Vulcan, Blue Origin is building its own rocket, New Glenn, for orbital launches.  Meanwhile, SpaceX has Falcon Heavy and Northrop Grumman is building OmegA.  That’s four companies bidding for the Air Force launches. The problem is the Air Force does not anticipate having enough satellites needing launches to support four companies.  It plans to award contracts to only two and split the launches 60/40.

Bids were due on August 12 and Blue Origin submitted one, as did the others, but the same day it also filed a “pre-award” protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) arguing that the process is “flawed.”  GAO has not issued a decision yet.

NASA Issues RFP for Getting Cargo to Gateway

NASA is seeking proposals from the commercial sector to provide logistics services for the Gateway it is building in lunar orbit for the Artemis program, which is to return American astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.

NASA is building the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew spacecraft to ferry astronauts between Earth and Gateway, but it wants to purchase commercial services for cargo.  The companies are to provide logistics modules and launches on commercial rockets.

Today NASA issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) to deliver pressurized and unpressurized cargo to Gateway for six months of docked operations followed by automatic disposal.  The solicitation has a maximum $7 billion value and is for multi-award, firm fixed-price contracts over 15 years, the planned lifetime of Gateway.  Each winner will be assured of at least two missions.  With NASA’s approval, the commercial provider may also deliver, remove and/or return non-NASA cargo.

This is the latest in NASA’s efforts to fulfill the goals of the Artemis program and eventually send people to Mars.  Others include requests for information or proposals for the following:

NASA announced last week that Marshall Space Flight Center will be in charge of overseeing the development of human-rated lunar landers through public-private partnerships. The landers will be docked to the Gateway and take crews down to the lunar surface and back.

NASA also decided on July 23 to award a sole-source contract to Northrop Grumman to build the mini-habitation module for the Gateway.  The Gateway’s initial configuration is quite modest, consisting only of the mini-hab and the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE).  NASA awarded Maxar Technologies the contract for the PPE in May.  The Gateway is the small object at the bottom of this NASA slide with large solar panels extending from each side.  Also shown are an Orion crew capsule and a lander that will dock there.  NASA plans to add more modules to Gateway, including from international partners, in later years.

Source: NASA

Newt Gringich’s Alternative to Artemis

Despite all that NASA is doing, critics argue the agency is not moving fast enough and the price-tag is too high.  One of them is former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a long-time avid supporter both of human spaceflight and commercial space.  He thinks the private sector could get Americans back on the Moon faster and cheaper than NASA and wants to offer a $2 billion prize to whatever company can do it first.

According to a report in Politico today [], Gingrich’s plan is for the government to award $1 billion to the first company that emplaces a human base on the Moon and a second $1 billion prize to whatever company can set up and run that base.

Prizes are not a new method to spur innovation.  The XPRIZE Foundation has offered space-related prizes already.  It is perhaps best known in space circles for sponsoring the Ansari X-Prize through which Burt Rutan won $10 million for launching the first privately-developed, reusable, human spaceship, SpaceShipOne, in 2004.  Google teamed with the Foundation for the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition for a private company to land a spacecraft on the Moon.  It ended in 2018 without a winner, although some of the companies (including Astrobotic, discussed above) continued on their own.

The Ansari X-Prize was intended to inaugurate a new world of commercial human spaceflight, but 15 years later it is still in its nascent stage.  The Google Lunar X-Prize ended without a winner.  Thus, the Gingrich prize idea has been met with some skepticism.

Trump Still Focused on Mars, Not the Moon

Although getting astronauts back on the Moon is prominently in the news, President Trump remains focused on Mars.  Trump signed Space Policy Directive-1 in December 2017 restoring the goal of landing on the Moon to NASA’s human spaceflight program, replacing President Obama’s plan to bypass the Moon and go directly to Mars. But it seems that’s really what Trump wants, too.

In tweets, speeches, and recently an Oval Office ceremony to commemorate the Apollo 11 landing, it is Mars that is on his mind.  He reiterated that once more during a campaign rally for his 2020 reelection bid in New Hampshire last Thursday.

We are investing in the future of human spaceflight and someday soon American astronauts will plant the Stars and Stripes on the Surface of Mars.  — President Trump, campaign rally, August 15, 2019

He went on to talk glowingly about the reusable rockets being developed by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and how those “rich guys” are using government facilities and “paying us rent.”

NASA officials now emphasize more often that the Moon is a steppingstone to Mars to show that Artemis is, in fact, in sync with the President.

Tardigrades on the Moon

The Israeli non-profit SpaceIL sent the Beresheet lander to the Moon earlier this year.  It crashed.  One of the payloads aboard Beresheet was provided by a U.S. non-profit, Arch Mission Foundation —  the Arch Lunar Library, a “30 million page archive of human history and civilization” that might survive even if Earth does not.

Two weeks ago, however, Arch Mission Foundation co-founder Nova Spivack disclosed a secret to Wired — his payload included thousands of dehydrated microscopic critters called tardigrades or “water bears” in a resin. []

He sent living creatures, known for their hardiness, to the Moon without disclosing it even to SpaceIL. He explained why to Mashable.

We didn’t tell them we were putting life in this thing.  Space agencies don’t like last-minute changes. So we just decided to take the risk.   Nova Spivack, as quoted by Mashable

Wired reported that scientists have revived tardigrades after as many as 10 years in a dehydrated state.  Follow-up articles by a variety of sources cast doubt on whether the tardigrades can survive the harsh conditions on the Moon, but the point is that they were aboard with only a handful of people knowing about them and not the ones who are in charge of approving U.S. commercial launches. Beresheet was launched from Florida by SpaceX, a U.S. company, which needs to get approval from the FAA.

Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires countries to authorize and supervise activities of non-government entities.  Article IX require countries to avoid what is commonly called harmful contamination.  International planetary protection guidelines place celestial bodies into different categories depending on the likelihood that they may harbor indigenous life that might be affected and the Moon is not one of the places where that is a concern.  And the Apollo astronauts left biological waste on the Moon.  But the legal issues are interesting.  The Verge has a good article about them.  []

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