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Universe Today

NASA picks the target for its water-hunting moon rover

NASA says its VIPER rover will head for the western edge of Nobile Crater near the moon’s south pole in 2023, targeting a region where shadowed craters are cold enough for water ice to exist, but where enough of the sun’s rays reach to keep the solar-powered robot going.

Today’s announcement provides a focus for a mission that’s meant to blaze a trail for Artemis astronauts who are scheduled to land on the lunar surface by as early as 2024, and for a sustainable lunar settlement that could take shape by the end of the decade.

“Once it’s on the surface, it will search for ice and other resources on and below the lunar surface that could one day be used and harvested for long-term human exploration of the moon,” Lori Glaze, director of the planetary science division at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said during a teleconference.

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GeekWire

NASA awards millions to keep lunar lander dreams alive

Months after losing out to SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and two of its partners in a lunar lander project will be getting fresh infusions of financial support from NASA, thanks to a follow-up program aimed at boosting capabilities for putting astronauts on the moon.

Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman aren’t the only companies sharing a total of $146 million in fixed-price awards. SpaceX and Dynetics — the two rivals of the Blue Origin-led “National Team” in NASA’s previous lunar lander solicitation — will get pieces of the pie as well.

The follow-up program, NextSTEP Appendix N, seeks expertise to help NASA shape the strategy and requirements for a future solicitation that’ll be focused on establishing regular crewed transportation from lunar orbit to the moon’s surface.

That’s different from the competitive process that resulted in SpaceX winning a $2.9 billion contract from NASA in April to adapt its Starship super-rocket as a lunar landing system. That development program, NextSTEP Appendix H, covers only the first crewed landing of NASA’s Artemis moon program, tentatively set for 2024. Appendix N would set the stage for the landings that are expected to follow.

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GeekWire

GAO rejects challenges to SpaceX’s lunar lander contract

The Government Accountability Office today turned back protests from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and Alabama-based Dynetics, ruling that NASA was within its rights to award a single $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX to build the first lunar lander to carry astronauts to the moon since the Apollo era.

Industry teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics had put in rival bids for NASA’s lunar lander business, and filed protests with the GAO when the space agency made the single-source award in April. The GAO had 100 days to decide whether the award should be upheld or overturned. In the meantime, NASA and SpaceX suspended work on the contract.

The bid protests raised several objections to NASA’s award — including the fact that NASA made only one award.

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Jeff Bezos sweetens the deal for NASA lunar lander

In an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Jeff Bezos says his Blue Origin space venture will waive up to $2 billion in payments as part of a deal to build a second lunar landing system for NASA’s use.

The offer comes just days after Bezos rode Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket ship to the edge of space and back. It appears aimed at addressing one of the factors that led NASA in April to issue only one contract for a landing system capable of carrying astronauts to the moon’s surface by as early as 2024.

That $2.9 billion contract went to SpaceX, in part because NASA said Congress didn’t award enough money for two providers. NASA also gave its highest technical rating to SpaceX’s proposal to use a version of its Starship launch system, which is currently under development.

Blue Origin and its industry partners ⁠— including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper ⁠— bid $6 billion to design and build a competing landing system. After SpaceX won the award, Blue Origin’s team and Dynetics, the third competitor for a NASA contract, filed protests with the Government Accountability Office. The GAO is due to rule on those protests by Aug. 4.

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Cosmic Space

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:

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GeekWire

Jeff Bezos’ space venture approaches crucial phase

Jeff Bezos may be easing back from his CEO role at Amazon, but now he’s due to feel the heat at Blue Origin, the privately held space venture he created in the year 2000.

The next 31 days arguably could rank as the most crucial month so far in the history of a space company that’s headquartered in Kent, Wash., but also has employees in locales ranging from Florida and Washington, D.C., to Alabama, Texas and California.

The red-letter date is July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, when Bezos and three crewmates are scheduled to take the first crewed flight aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship in West Texas.

But there are a couple of other dates that loom large on Blue Origin’s timeline: The big one is Aug. 4, the Government Accountability Office’s deadline for deciding whether Blue Origin and its space industry partners should be reconsidered for a lunar lander contract from NASA’s Artemis moon exploration program.

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‘Bezos Bailout’? Lunar lander battle gets political

The tussle over NASA funding for lunar landing systems has touched down in the Senate — with one leading senator seeking additional funding that could go to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, and another leading senator arguing against a “Bezos Bailout.”

The senator on the pro-funding side is Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Her amendment to the Endless Frontier Act could put Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin and its space industry partners back in the running for billions of dollars of NASA support for their human landing system.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., is on the anti-funding side: This week, he submitted an amendment that would “eliminate the multi-billion dollar Bezos Bailout.”

This all has to do with NASA’s decision last month to award a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX for a Starship lunar lander that’s designed to carry astronauts to the lunar surface for the space agency’s Artemis program, as early as 2024.

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Cosmic Space

China’s Mars pictures fuel NASA’s funding pitch

The first pictures from a Chinese probe on the surface of Mars were released today, sparking a plea from NASA’s recently appointed chief for more funding to keep America in the lead on the space frontier.

China’s Zhurong rover, which landed on the Red Planet on May 14, sent back pictures as it sat atop its landing platform on the flat plain of Utopia Planitia. One picture provides a rover’s-eye view of the ramp that the six-wheeled robot will use to roll down onto the surface.

The probe also sent back video clips that were captured by China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter during the lander’s separation.

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NASA freezes SpaceX’s lunar lander cash

NASA says it’ll hold up on its payments to SpaceX for developing its Starship super-rocket as a lunar lander while the Government Accountability Office sorts out challenges to the $2.9 billion contract award from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture as well as from Alabama-based Dynetics.

Dynetics and a space industry team led by Blue Origin submitted their protests to the GAO this week, contending that the award unfairly favored SpaceX. The three teams spent months working on proposals in hopes of winning NASA’s support for developing a landing system capable of putting astronauts on the moon’s surface by as early as 2024.

The GAO has 100 days to determine whether the challengers’ complaints have merit, and if so, what to do about it. That 100-day clock runs out on Aug. 4.

In the meantime, the space agency is suspending work on the contract. “NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the HLS contract has been suspended until GAO resolves all outstanding litigation related to this procurement,” Space News quoted NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt as saying.

It’s not clear how much of an effect the suspension of NASA funding will have on Starship development. Even before this month’s contract award, SpaceX was conducting an extraordinarily rapid series of high-altitude tests of Starship prototypes. The next prototype, dubbed SN15, is due for launch from SpaceX’s Boca Chica base in South Texas sometime in the next few days.

Landing people and cargo on the moon is just one of the applications that SpaceX has in mind for Starship. The reusable rocket ship and its even bigger Super Heavy booster are also meant to be used for point-to-point terrestrial travel, mass deployment of satellites in Earth orbit, commercial trips around the moon and odysseys to Mars and back. SpaceX has raised billions of dollars in private investment for its rocket development effort, and that funding seems likely to sustain SpaceX while the GAO reviews NASA’s award.

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Next NASA chief faces big moonshot decisions

President Joe Biden’s choice to lead NASA — former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — will be in the hot seat for a host of issues in human spaceflight that will require a tricky balance between “Old Space” and “New Space.”

Nelson is a 78-year-old Florida Democrat who went on a space shuttle flight as a congressman in 1986, and served three terms in the Senate before his defeat in 2018. In today’s statement announcing his nomination, the White House said that Nelson “was known as the go-to senator for our nation’s space program,” and that “most every piece of space and science law has had his imprint.”

“I am honored to be nominated by Joe Biden and, if confirmed, to help lead NASA into an exciting future of possibilities,” Nelson said in a statement. “Its workforce radiates optimism, ingenuity and a can-do spirit. The NASA team continues to achieve the seemingly impossible as we venture into the cosmos.”