Today’s Tidbits: November 19, 2019

Today’s Tidbits: November 19, 2019

Here are’s tidbits for November 19, 2019:  Blue Origin wins favorable GAO decision on AF launch procurement; NASA ISS advisory committee highlights top concerns.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

Blue Origin Wins Favorable GAO Decision on AF Launch Acquisition

Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin got some good news from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) late yesterday.  GAO’s Managing Associate General Counsel for Procurement, Kenneth Patton, issued a letter sustaining one aspect of Blue Origin’s protest of the Air Force’s “Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement” Request for Proposals (RFP).  The Air Force is soliciting bids for contracts that will be awarded in 2020-2024 for national security space launches that will take place through 2027.  The Air Force plans to choose only two companies.

Blue Origin filed the protest in August arguing that the RFP is flawed because it contains “unclear and ambiguous selection criteria,” “discriminates against new competitors,” and “unnecessarily restricts competition.”

GAO agreed with the first complaint, but not the others.

GAO sustained the protest, finding that the RFP’s basis for award is inconsistent with applicable procurement law and regulation, and otherwise unreasonable. According to the RFP, the government will make the two awards by deciding which combination of two independently developed proposals offers the best value to the government. This methodology, as described by the agency, however, does not provide a reasonable, common basis on which offerors will be expected to compete and have their proposals evaluated. GAO recommends that the agency amend the solicitation. Blue Origin also challenged other provisions of the solicitation. GAO found that the other challenged provisions were reasonable and in accordance with applicable procurement law and regulation, and therefore denied those protest allegations.

As the quote says, GAO “recommends that the agency amend the solicitation,” which really means that it must do so.

The full GAO decision has not been released because it must be reviewed to ensure no proprietary information is made public.

Blue Origin President Bob Smith issued a statement thanking GAO.

We want to thank GAO for their careful consideration of these serious issues…  This is an important mission to Blue Origin, and we remain committed to our long-term partnership with the Air Force and to working with them as they address the GAO’s recommendations. …

NASA ISS Advisory  Committee Highlights Top Concerns

NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) Advisory Committee met on Monday to report on its August 2019 meeting with its Russian counterpart, the Roscosmos Expert Advisory Committee.  The two committees form the ISS Joint Commission that monitors the status of the ISS.

The committee’s Deputy Chairman, Bill Readdy, reported on behalf of Chairman Tom Stafford.  Two key issues are maintaining sufficient U.S. crew members on the ISS next year if the U.S. commercial crew systems are not ready, and the status of the FGB module, the first ISS module, which is 21 years old.

Regarding crew, Readdy said that the Joint Commission concluded that the “near term future of the station is at risk” because of the uncertainty of the availability of the commercial crew vehicles.  NASA pays Russia to ferry astronauts to and from ISS, but the last contracted seat is for a Soyuz launch in April 2020 since it expected the new U.S. systems to be ready by then.  The April flight will deliver one U.S. astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts for a 6-month mission and there is no provision for Russia to launch any U.S. astronauts after that.  This issue also was highlighted in a recent report from the NASA Inspector General.

The Joint Commission is particularly concerned if unexpected (“contingency”) extravehicular activities (EVAs, or spacewalks) are needed.  “A single U.S. astronaut on ISS is not sufficient to conduct contingency extravehicular activities critical to the U.S. operational segment.”  NASA and Roscosmos are training Russian cosmonauts to support such EVAs, but Readdy pointed out that will only last through October 2020 “as there is no arrangement in place … to fly a U.S. astronaut beyond that point. The Joint Commission strongly recommends that as soon as possible NASA and Roscosmos find a mutually agreed solution to ensure the continued presence of appropriately trained U.S. and Russian crew members on ISS.”

The ISS partners are committed to operating ISS through 2024, although the United States is considering extending that to 2030 as provided in the 2019 NASA Authorization Act that is pending in the Senate.

The Joint Commission concluded the ISS is good through 2024, but Roscosmos “needs to confirm the technical feasibility of ISS extension to 2030” although it “has not identified any significant technical reasons why the ISS cannot be extended to that time period.”

ISS configuration. Credit: NASA. Russia’s Service Module (Zvezda) and FGB (Zarya) are shown in the upper left.

However, the first two Russian-built modules are getting old.  Roscosmos had a list of concerns about the FGB module, a Russian acronym for “functional cargo block.” It was christened Zarya (Dawn) once on orbit.  Russia built FGB, but NASA paid them to do it so it counts as a U.S. module.  Gas bubbles are forming in the hydraulic control loops because of maintenance and repair activities.  There is concern that if the bubbles grow too large, they will disrupt pump function and if the pumps fail, thermal control loops could be affected. Russian specialists are working on a solution. Noise is another problem.  The main source of the noise is 15 cooling fans in FGB that have been operating for more than 20 years. The Russian company Khrunichev is designing low noise fans and if they work out “NASA may replace all the fans on the module.”

Russia’s Service Module, or Zvezda, was launched in 2000.  Readdy said it was designed to operate until 2013 and Russia has extended that to 2020 “with annual review and certification.”  Russian specialists are monitoring hardware and software discrepancies and have not noticed an increasing trend, “which bodes well for lifetime extension.”  Getting replacement parts for a number of the systems is proving difficult, however, and Russia is looking at redesigned upgrades.

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