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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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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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How to make the most of the Supermoon eclipse

The only total lunar eclipse of 2021 will also be one of the shortest total lunar eclipses in recent years, lasting just less than 15 minutes. And it’s not exactly the easiest one to see in the Seattle area, due to its timing as well as the weather.

Earth’s shadow will start creeping across the full moon’s disk at 1:47 a.m. PT on May 26, and the eclipse will reach totality at 4:11 a.m. Because this particular eclipse has the moon passing so close to the edge of Earth’s umbra — that is, the shadow’s darkest part — the moon starts brightening up again at 4:25 a.m. in the dawn’s early light.

The forecast for Western Washington poses even more of a challenge for skywatchers. “Conditions not looking favorable at this time,” the National Weather Service’s Seattle bureau told me in a tweet. Even if it’s not actually raining, overcast skies could well spoil the view.

“Best advice at this time is to a) get some elevation above low clouds or b) go east of the Cascade crest,” forecasters said.

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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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Elon Musk taunts Jeff Bezos over lunar lander protest

The billionaire space battle just got kicked up a notch, with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture challenging NASA’s award of a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract to SpaceX — and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk replying with a double entendre.

The contretemps in commercial space began on April 26 when Blue Origin sent the Government Accountability Office a 50-page filing (plus more than 100 pages’ worth of attachments) claiming that NASA improperly favored SpaceX in the deliberations that led to this month’s single-source award.

A team led by Blue Origin — with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper as partners — had competed for a share of NASA funding to develop a system capable of landing astronauts on the moon in the mid-2020s. Alabama-based Dynetics was also in the competitiion, and has also filed a protest with the GAO.

Both protests contend that NASA was wrong to make only one contract award, despite Congress’ less-than-expected support levels, due to the importance of promoting competition in the lunar lander market. Both protests also contest many of the claims NASA made in a document explaining its selection process. For example, Blue Origin says NASA erroneously determined that it was seeking advance payments for development work.

Although both protests delve deeply into the details of procurement, Blue Origin’s challenge has an added twist of personal rivalry.

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SpaceX wins out over Blue Origin for moon landings

In a surprise move that was dictated by budget constraints, NASA is awarding $2.89 billion to SpaceX alone for the development of its Starship super-rocket as a lunar landing system for astronauts — leaving out Alabama-based Dynetics as well as a team led by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

If all proceeds according to plan, SpaceX would demonstrate Starship’s capabilities during an uncrewed mission to the lunar surface, and then follow up with a crewed demonstration mission for NASA’s Artemis moon program in the mid-2020s.

“NASA’s Artemis program is well underway, as you can see, and with our lander award today, landing the next two American astronauts on the moon is well within our reach,” Steve Jurczyk, the space agency’s acting administrator, said today during a teleconference announcing the award.

In a tweet, SpaceX said it was “humbled to help @NASAArtemis usher in a new era of human space exploration.”

NASA also plans to set up a follow-up competition for future crewed lunar landings that would be provided as a commercial service. Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that could serve as another “on-ramp” for Blue Origin’s team and Dynetics.

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Way-out technologies win NASA’s support

NASA’s latest crop of space technology grants will fund work on projects ranging from power-beaming lasers for lunar missions to high-temperature testing of components for nuclear-powered rockets.

Those are just a couple of the 365 concepts attracting a total of $45 million in grants from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, also known as SBIR and STTR.

Jim Reuter, associate administrator for the space agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said the release of the SBIR/STTR Phase I solicitation was accelerated by two months to help small-scale tech ventures cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

“At NASA, we recognize that small businesses are facing unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic. … We hope the expedited funding helps provide a near-term boost for future success,” Reuter said today in a news release.

This year’s batch of SBIR/STTR Phase I grants will go to 289 small businesses and 47 research institutions across the country. More than 30% of the awards are going to first-time NASA SBIR/STTR recipients.

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Cosmic Space

Russia and China make a deal for joint moon base

Russian and Chinese space officials say they’ll cooperate on the creation of a moon base known as the International Lunar Research Station — a move that could pose a challenge to NASA’s Artemis program for lunar exploration.

The memorandum of understanding for the project was signed today by Roscosmos’ director general, Dmitry Rogozin; and by Zhang Kejian, head of the China National Space Administration. The signing ceremony was conducted by videoconference.

In a statement, Roscosmos said the station will offer “open access to all interested countries and international partners, with the aim of strengthening scientific research interaction, promoting research and using outer space for peaceful purposes in the interests of all humankind.”

CNSA issued a similar statement, saying that the ILRS would be a “comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation, built on the lunar surface and/or lunar orbit.” Research projects will focus on lunar exploration and utilization, moon-based observations, basic scientific studies and technical tests.

Today’s reports from China and Russia didn’t specify the time frame for building the base, but last year, Chinese officials talked about building up the ILRS in the moon’s south polar region over the course of the 2020s and 2030s, with long-term habitation by 2045.