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Northrop Grumman to build moon-orbiting habitat

Cygnus-derived habitation module
An artist’s conception shows Northrop Grumman’s habitation module, which is based on the design of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft. (Northrop Grumman Illustration)

NASA says it’s choosing Northrop Grumman to build the habitation module for its future moon-orbiting Gateway outpost, because it’s the only company that can do the job in time for a 2024 lunar landing.

In a procurement document released last week, the space agency said the other companies that were competing to build the Minimal Habitation Module as part of NASA’s NextSTEP program — Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NanoRacks and Sierra Nevada Corp. — couldn’t have their hardware ready in time to meet the deadline set by the Trump administration.

“NGIS [Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, formerly Orbital ATK] was the only NextSTEP-2 contractor with a module design and the production and tooling resources capable of meeting the 2024 deadline,” NASA said.

For that reason, NASA is going with a sole-source process to award the contract for the habitation module, short-circuiting the full and open NextSTEP-2 Appendix A competition. As long as Northrop Grumman submits an acceptable proposal with a price tag that’s “fair and reasonable,” NASA will give its go-ahead.

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Apollo anniversary brings tributes and questions

A Saturn V rocket is projected on the Washington Monument during a 17-minute multimedia presentation celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

Fifty years after Apollo 11’s moonwalkers took one giant leap for humanity, luminaries including President Donald Trump and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — the world’s richest individual — paid tribute to the achievement and looked forward to the future of spaceflight.

Today’s observances were about more than memories: There were also fresh questions about where that future might lead — plus a Russian rocket launch that resonated with references to the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1960s.

The marquee observance on today’s anniversary of the landing on July 20, 1969, came at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where Vice President Mike Pence invoked the legacy of the Apollo program and hailed NASA’s initiative to send astronauts to the moon once again by 2024.

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Target for SLS rocket’s first launch shifts to 2021

SLS tank test
NASA engineers load a test article for the SLS liquid-oxygen tank into its test stand at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. (NASA Photo)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told lawmakers today that the first launch of the heavy-lift Space Launch System was “definitely achievable by 2021,” seemingly signaling a shift in the plan for a 2020 maiden launch.

Bridenstine’s testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation came just a day after he wrote in a blog post that NASA was “staying on schedule for flying the Artemis 1 mission with our Orion spacecraft on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket next year, and for sending the first crewed mission, Artemis 2, to the lunar vicinity by 2022.”

Artemis 1, previously known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, would launch an uncrewed Orion capsule on a test flight looping around the moon. Artemis 2 would trace a similar course with a crew on board, in preparation for sending two astronauts to the moon’s surface in 2024 via a yet-to-be-built Gateway space outpost in lunar orbit..

Today, Bridenstine said Artemis 2 was scheduled for the 2022-2023 time frame. He stuck with the 2024 date for the lunar landing.

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Watchdogs worry over NASA super-rocket

Space Launch System
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Space Launch System in flight. (NASA Illustration)

The federal government’s watchdog agency says getting NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket off the ground is likely to take longer and cost more than the space agency says it will.

Any issues that crop up in the months ahead could push the first uncrewed SLS launch, known as Artemis 1, from its planned mid-2020 timetable to mid-2021, the Government Accountability Office said in a study issued today.

What’s more, the GAO says NASA has been shifting costs forward to make it look as if expenses for the first launch have grown by $1 billion, when the actual adjusted cost growth is $1.8 billion.

Schedule and cost issues for SLS are particularly problematic because the rocket has been selected to carry NASA astronauts to the moon by 2024.

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Moonshot funding gets tangled up in politics

NASA town hall
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, at left, discusses the plan to send astronauts to the moon by 2024 as three of his associate administrators — William Gerstenmaier, Jim Reuter and Thomas Zurbuchen — look on during a town hall at NASA headquarters. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky)

Will NASA’s plan to land astronauts on the moon by 2024 fly with Congress? The Artemis program’s implications are still sinking in on Capitol Hill, but there’s already a political problem having to do with where the money’s supposed to come from.

Trump administration officials confirmed that the $1.6 billion being sought as a “down payment” for accelerating the push to the moon would be taken from a roughly $8 billion reserve account for the popular Pell Grant program, which funds education for millions of low-income students annually.

Due to the economy’s rebound from the 2008-2009 Great Recession, the number of Pell Grant recipients has been declining in recent years, leading to a buildup in reserves. Because of that, taking money from the reserves would not affect current recipients, who will be receiving up to $6,195 for the 2019-2020 academic year..

“This does not cut any spending for Pell Grant programs as the budget continues to ensure all students will get their full Pell Grant and keeps the program on sound fiscal footing,” Office of Management and Budget spokesman Wesley Denton told The Associated Press in a statement.

However, that glosses over the fact that the carryover reserve is meant to buoy the Pell Grant program through hard times, and avoid the multibillion-dollar shortfalls that were experienced during the last recession.

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White House seeks $1.6B for Artemis moon program

Moon mission
An artist’s conception shows astronauts exploring the moon after landing. (NASA Illustratiion)

The White House is asking Congress for $1.6 billion more than the $21 billion it previously requested for NASA’s budget, to fund what’s now known as the Artemis program to put American astronauts on the moon by 2024.

“This initial investment, I want to be clear, is a down payment,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters today.

He and other NASA officials got on the line for a hastily called teleconference after President Donald Trump tweeted about the supplemental request.

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5 revelations from ‘Artemis’ moon tale

The writer who made such a splash with “The Martian,” Andy Weir, is sharing the first chapter from “Artemis,” a crime caper set on the moon – and the thrills start hopping on the very first page.

You can get up to speed with the exploits of twentysomething porter Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, thanks to an excerpt posted to the “Read It Forward” website. The story is set decades from now, when “Star Trek” is studied as intensely as Shakespeare.

To whet your appetite, here are five features of the future moon you’ll find out about in the excerpt.

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