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Dynetics keeps working on lunar lander despite setback

It’s been two and a half months since Blue Origin and Dynetics lost out to SpaceX in NASA’s program to commission commercial lunar landers for the first crewed mission to the moon since Apollo.

Both companies are appealing NASA’s decision, and the Government Accountability Office is due to rule on their protests by Aug. 4. The GAO could force NASA to revisit its decision to give SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract for a moon-lander version of its Starship super-rocket — or let the decision stand as is.

We’ve already talked about why this is an important program for Blue Origin and its billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, as well as for Blue Origin’s partners in the “National Team”: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.  But it’s also important for Alabama-based Dynetics, a Leidos subsidiary that worked on its bid with more than two dozen partners and subcontractors including Sierra Space, Draper and Thales Alenia Space Italy.

NASA gave Dynetics a lower rating than SpaceX and the National Team in its assessment for the initial phase of the Human Landing System program, a.k.a. HLS Option A. Nevertheless, Dynetics is continuing to work on its lunar lander concept.

In connection with our story about Blue Origin, we sent Dynetics a few questions about the status of its lander development program — and company spokeswoman Kristina Hendrix sent back these answers:

Cosmic Log: Is work on the lunar lander project continuing, either as part of the closeout of the initial funding round or at your expense? Anything you can provide on the plan to move forward, whether the GAO bid protest is sustained or the sole-source award to SpaceX is upheld, would be appreciated.

Dynetics: “The three HLS contractors submitted our proposals to NASA for Option A back in December, but the Base Period contracts continued through February, and a lot of additional work was accomplished.  At Dynetics, we hit a significant milestone in early February by completing an integrated lander Preliminary Design Review (PDR) — a huge accomplishment given it was less than nine months from contract start.  As is the case with any complex system development program, reaching PDR didn’t mean the design was complete.  We’ve continued to make excellent progress.

“NASA’s funding for all three contractors stopped at the end of February, so all the work that’s been done since then has been self-funded. Dynetics has continued at our own expense, albeit at a slower pace with a reduced workforce. We’re preparing for the next HLS-related contract opportunities, whatever they may be.

“What we’re most focused on today is ensuring that we can deliver a transportation system that will support NASA’s long-term Artemis program goal of creating a sustainable presence on the moon.”

Q: What corrective action would you like to see from NASA? A review of the HLS bids after consultation with the three teams to revisit issues raised during the evaluation of proposals, a fresh start from square one, or some other process?

A: “We do not wish to comment on the details of the GAO’s ongoing evaluation beyond what’s already publicly available. There is broad agreement in the U.S. government to support the Artemis program, and there is expressed interest at NASA and by many in Congress to maintain meaningful competition. We believe NASA’s focus should be on competitively developing landers that can support a sustained presence on the moon.”

Q: Dynetics teamed up with a variety of other companies, including Sierra Space and Maxar Technologies, to put together its concept. Is the team still together, or have at least some of the partners gone their separate ways?

A: “Team Dynetics is still strong. We have an outstanding team of partners that has performed extremely well together. Many teammates continued to support even after NASA’s funding stopped at the end of February, showing their real dedication to the mission. The team is very supportive of our approach and is ready to ramp back up as soon as possible.”

Q: NASA is preparing to proceed with a plan that calls for “Appendix N” proposals for sustainable lunar landing systems that could be used after the initial demonstration landing. The agency is also preparing a solicitation under a program called Lunar Exploration Transportation Services, or LETS, which would be issued in the 2022 time frame. Are these programs of interest to Dynetics, even if the HLS sole-source award to SpaceX is upheld? Or would you decide not to participate?

A: “Dynetics is still all-in on HLS as a government-funded, vital national endeavor. We believe in the mission, and we believe in its importance for the nation. Human space exploration is a national enterprise. HLS is the foundational element that ensures a strong U.S.-led presence on and around the moon.

“Since Apollo 8, when three Americans circled the moon in preparation for human landings, the U.S. has been the world leader in space exploration. However, today, China is investing heavily with the goal of becoming the world’s greatest spacefaring nation. China and Russia continue to talk about cooperation in space, deliberately independent of U.S. efforts. Therefore, the Artemis program is not just important, it is necessary to the future of U.S. national security.

“We believe that an endeavor of this importance must not only have sufficient government funding, it should have government involvement. While we agree that commercial industry brings innovation and speed and the possibility of operating the system affordably, government involvement is needed to ensure that the requirements that are necessary to ensure the safety of humans and to ensure that we have a national capability to protect our interests in space are met.

“Team Dynetics believes in our crew-centric design. We believe in the benefits to long-term Artemis program sustainability of our design and our program approach. There are others all over the world who also believe in our approach—we’ve heard from many of them since NASA’s selection.

“We also believe in competition. Competition drives innovation, progress, affordability and flexibility.

“Team Dynetics is ready to begin again working closely with NASA on a sustainable lander solution. We believe our approach to collaborating closely with NASA and to tailoring a lander design that is specific to the requirements to safely carry crew while being capable of delivering large payloads is critical to the long-term success of our nation’s success and security on the moon.”

Q: Do you foresee customers other than NASA making use of Dynetics’ human landing system? Would you eventually want to build such a system even if NASA didn’t use it?

A: “Yes. We believe a key enabler for a sustainable Artemis program is a reusable, affordable lunar transportation system that does more than safely carry crew to the surface and back for NASA and other customers.  We can offer a reusable, lower-cost landing system, capable of delivering crew and cargo, with our design.  These features make it affordable and able to take the wide variety of cargo that’s necessary to enable a long-term presence on the moon.

“Just as with the development of the postal service and railroads, it is necessary for the government to invest initially to bring the capability to bear. Without that up-front investment, only a couple of people in the world could afford to foot the bill for system development, and it’s unclear whether they would still be interested in the moon (versus Mars) or if they would design a system with the same attention to crew safety and interest in national security that NASA would ensure.

“HLS is the critical element — the keystone — that enables a bridge to a new space economy. HLS is the lunar transportation system for both crew and cargo; it enables the movement of goods to and from the surface. When HLS is operational, it will stimulate critical infrastructure and open the door for communication, navigation and timing; surface and cislunar operations; and resource extraction, refining and utilization. Sustainability is the single-most important aspect of the Artemis program, and a reusable, reliable HLS is the keystone to achieving lunar program sustainability.”

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

One reply on “Dynetics keeps working on lunar lander despite setback”

Funny how in the country of the most private and least state, public investment is always needed to make private individuals earn money.
China doesn’t care about the space race being a threat, while Russia has halved its investment in space.
They are just excuses to get money from the state.

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