SpaceX files protest of NASA’s Lucy launch contract awarded to ULA

SpaceX has filed a protest challenging a nearly $150 million NASA contract awarded to United Launch Alliance last month to send a robotic asteroid …
File photo of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket inside the company’s hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

SpaceX has filed a protest challenging a nearly $150 million NASA contract awarded to United Launch Alliance last month to send a robotic asteroid probe into space.

The protest submitted to the Government Accountability Office on Feb. 11 questions a launch contract for NASA’s Lucy science mission to United Launch Alliance. NASA announced Jan. 31 that ULA won the launch contract for the Lucy mission, set for liftoff in October 2021 from Cape Canaveral aboard ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket.

SpaceX said in a statement that it could launch the Lucy mission for less than the $148.3 million awarded to ULA, a 50-50 joint venture between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

“Since SpaceX has started launching missions for NASA, this is the first time the company has challenged one of the agency’s award decisions,” a SpaceX spokesperson said in a statement. “SpaceX offered a solution with extraordinarily high confidence of mission success at a price dramatically lower than the award amount, so we believe the decision to pay vastly more to Boeing and Lockheed for the same mission was therefore not in the best interest of the agency or the American taxpayers.”

NASA confirmed the protest, saying that the agency issued a stop work order on the Lucy mission after SpaceX’s filing with the GAO. In response to an inquiry from Spaceflight Now, a NASA spokesperson later clarified that the stop work order impacts only the Lucy launch contract, not other work on the mission, which features a spacecraft built by Lockheed Martin and a science team managed by Hal Levison, a researcher based at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

In a statement announcing the launch contract last month, ULA said NASA selected the Atlas 5 rocket for the Lucy mission after a “competitive launch service task order evaluation” by the space agency’s Launch Services Program. ULA’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets are certified to launch NASA’s robotic interplanetary science missions, alongside SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launcher. Both companies are expected to submit bids for each task order competition managed the Launch Services Program.

NASA selected ULA’s Atlas 5 variant without any solid rocket boosters — known as the “401” vehicle configuration — for the Lucy mission. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket also has the lift capability to send the Lucy spacecraft on its interplanetary trajectory, assuming the Falcon 9 dedicates all of its propellant to the launch, leaving no fuel reserve for landing the first stage on land or at sea.

Lucy will encounter seven asteroids during its 12-year mission, beginning with a main belt asteroid, then proceeding through swarms of small objects that lead and trail Jupiter in its orbit around the sun. Lucy will be the first mission to visit this family of asteroids, called Trojans, locked in Jupiter-type orbits.

Scientists believe the Trojan asteroids represent a diverse sample of the types of small planetary building blocks that populated the solar system after its formation 4.5 billion years ago. Read our earlier story for details on the mission’s scientific objectives.

The Lucy spacecraft is expected to weigh no more than 3,163 pounds (1,435 kilograms) at launch, with fuel loaded, according to Levison, the chief scientist on the mission.

“ULA entered into an open competition for NASA’s Lucy spacecraft and was honored to be awarded this important science mission,” the company said in a statement. “This interplanetary mission has an extremely narrow launch window in order to reach all of the desired planetary bodies and accomplish the science objectives. If Lucy misses this launch window, the full mission cannot be accomplished for decades.”

File photo of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket on its launch pad in Florida. Credit: NASA/Kenneth Allen

ULA touted its record of “schedule certainty” when officials announced the Lucy launch contract last month, highlighting the Atlas 5’s record of launching on time, or at least close to its original launch date.

“We could not be more pleased that NASA has selected ULA to launch this amazing planetary science mission,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and chief executive officer, in a Jan. 31 statement. “This mission has a once-in-a-lifetime planetary launch window, and Atlas 5’s world-leading schedule certainty, coupled with our reliability and performance provided the optimal vehicle for this mission.”

The Lucy launch window opens Oct. 16, 2021, and extends approximately 20 days. The launch will put Lucy into a heliocentric orbit around the sun, and the probe will return to Earth’s vicinity one year after its liftoff — in October 2022 — to use the planet’s gravity to slingshot toward the outer solar system.

A fortuitous alignment of Lucy’s asteroid targets will allow the mission to visit seven objects — including one binary asteroid — through 2033, giving scientists access to a wide array of Trojan asteroids, believed to be icy relics left over from the formation of the planets.

“The orbits of the Lucy targets are literally aligning in order to make the mission work,” Levison said. “There is, therefore, a unique trajectory for the spacecraft, and thus a very specific launch period. It is possible for us to launch roughly a year later during what would have been the first (Earth gravity assist) in our nominal trajectory.

“While this would preserve our target list because we are launching onto the same trajectory, it is less than optimal for several reasons,” Levison said.

If the liftoff slipped to 2022, a more powerful launcher would be required to give Lucy the boost it needed to make up for the speed imparted during the Earth gravity assist maneuver, according to Levison.

NASA said it is “always cognizant of its mission schedule,” but a spokesperson declined to comment further on pending litigation.

The Government Accountability Office has until May 22 to rule on SpaceX’s contract protest.

According to the GAO’s own statistics, the office sustained 15 percent of contract protests in fiscal year 2018. In such a case, the GAO says it recommends corrective actions to federal agencies to resolve the concerns of the protest. The recommended corrective actions may include the termination of a contract, a new solicitation or competition for the contract in question, and reimbursement of the protester’s costs to file the challenge with the GAO and prepare its original contract bid.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Jokers please: first human Mars mission may need onboard comedians

Wanted: smart, fit and unflappable applicants for humanity’s first mission to Mars. Must have: crazy wig, oversized boots and a big red nose.

Wanted: smart, fit and unflappable applicants for humanity’s first mission to Mars. Must have: crazy wig, oversized boots and a big red nose.

It is enough to make Neil Armstrong spin in his grave, but researchers have found that the success of a future mission to the red planet may depend on the ship having a class clown.

Rather than the cool personality that underpinned the Right Stuff in the Apollo era, future astronauts may need to prove they have something very different: the Silly Stuff. An onboard comedian is a proven way to unite teams in stressful situations, research shows.

“These are people that have the ability to pull everyone together, bridge gaps when tensions appear and really boost morale,” said Jeffrey Johnson, an anthropologist at the University of Florida. “When you’re living with others in a confined space for a long period of time, such as on a mission to Mars, tensions are likely to fray. It’s vital you have somebody who can help everyone get along, so they can do their jobs and get there and back safely. It’s mission critical.”

Johnson spent four years studying overwintering crews in Antarctica and identified the importance of clowns, leaders, buddies, storytellers, peacemakers and counsellors for bonding teams together and making them work smoothly. He found the same mixes worked in US, Russian, Polish, Chinese and Indian bases.

“These roles are informal, they emerge within the group. But the interesting thing is that if you have the right combination the group does very well. And if you don’t, the group does very badly,” he said.

The view across Elysium Planitia, the vast lava plain near the equator of Mars, taken by Nasa’s InSight lander in November 2018.

The view across Elysium Planitia, the vast lava plain near the equator of Mars, taken by Nasa’s InSight lander in November 2018. Photograph: EPA

Nasa plans to fly astronauts around the moon in 2023 as part of its preparation for a crewed mission to Mars as early as 2033. The Russian and Chinese space agencies have proposed human missions from 2040 onwards. Private ventures such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX have also set their sights on the planet.

But a mission to Mars is no cakewalk. On average, the red planet is 140m miles from Earth and the travel time one way is around eight months. The distance alone is expected to take a psychological toll, but astronauts must also face a time delay in communications of up to 20 minutes each way. In an emergency, there will be no time to call mission control: the crew are effectively on their own.

Even minor delays in communication are bad for crews. When Nasa tested a 50 second communications delay on astronauts on the international space station, they found well-being slumped and frustration rose, with knock-on effects for how efficiently tasks got done.

Johnson is now working with Nasa to explore whether clowns and other characters are crucial for the success of long space missions. So far he has monitored four groups of astronauts who spent 30 to 60 days in the agency’s mock space habitat, the Human Exploration Research Analog, or Hera, in Houston, Texas.

“We now want to see if these types of informal role dynamics function similarly in space-simulated environments,” Johnson said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington DC. Early results suggest they do, he said.

Johnson, who also studied isolated salmon fishers in Alaska, found that clowns were often willing to be the butt of jokes and pranks. In Antarctica, one clown he observed endured a mock funeral and burial in the tundra, but was crucial for building bridges between clusters of overwintering scientists and between contractors and researchers, or “beakers” as the contractors called them.

The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen appreciated the importance of the expedition clown, Johnson said. In 1910, Amundsen picked the large, jolly chef Adolf Lindstrøm for his attempt on the South Pole, knowing that Lindstrøm’s joie de vivre would relieve the stress of homesickness and the long polar nights. “He has rendered greater and more valuable services to the Norwegian polar expedition than any other man,” Amundsen noted in his diary.

Johnson said: “Lindstrøm was viewed by others as a great entertainer who helped maintain spirits and morale over the long austral winter. His role was informal but critical for maintaining group cohesion in this extreme environment.

“Scott’s polar expedition was radically different. The crew broke into cliques, they didn’t have a cohesive group.”

But, as Lindstrøm showed, there is more to it than making people laugh. “Being funny won’t be enough to land somebody the job,” Johnson added.

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NASA mulls buying new rides to space from Russia amid program delays

NASA awarded $6.8 billion to SpaceX, founded by Tesla Inc Chief Executive Elon Musk, and aerospace giant Boeing to develop separate launch …

By Joey Roulette

ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) – NASA said on Friday it was weighing an option to buy two additional astronaut seats aboard a Russian rocket as a contingency plan against further delays in the launch systems being developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing Co.

A possible purchase “provides flexibility and back-up capability” as the companies build rocket-and-capsule launch systems to return astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) from U.S. soil for the first time since NASA’s Space Shuttle program went dark in 2011.

The U.S. space agency has since had to rely on Russia’s Roscosmos program to ferry astronauts to the orbital space station at a cost of roughly $80 million per seat, NASA has said.

After 2019 there are no seats available on the spacecraft for U.S. crew, and a NASA advisory panel recommended on Friday that the U.S. space program develop a contingency plan to guarantee access to the station in case technical problems delay Boeing and SpaceX any further.

A NASA spokesman on Friday characterized a solicitation request NASA filed on Wednesday as a contingency plan. NASA said it could buy a seat for one astronaut in the fall and another seat in the spring of 2020.

“The absence of U.S. crew members at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state,” NASA wrote in its solicitation on Wednesday.

NASA awarded $6.8 billion to SpaceX, founded by Tesla Inc Chief Executive Elon Musk, and aerospace giant Boeing to develop separate launch systems to fly astronauts to space, but both companies have faced technical challenges and delays.

NASA announced another slip last week, citing concerns for both contractors such as the need to complete hardware testing and other factors. The U.S. space agency said SpaceX was now targeting March 2 instead of Feb. 23 for its un-crewed Crew Dragon test flight, with its astronaut flight coming in July.

NASA said Boeing’s un-crewed CST-100 Starliner would fly no sooner than April, with Boeing’s crewed mission is currently slated for August.

“Typically, problems will be discovered during these test flights,” NASA wrote.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Orlando, Florida; editing by Eric M. Johnson and G Crosse)

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NASA mulls buying new rides to space from Russia amid programme delays

NASA awarded $6.8 billion to SpaceX, founded by Tesla Inc Chief Executive Elon Musk, and aerospace giant Boeing to develop separate launch …

By Joey Roulette

ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) – NASA said on Friday it was weighing an option to buy two additional astronaut seats aboard a Russian rocket as a contingency plan against further delays in the launch systems being developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing Co.

A possible purchase “provides flexibility and back-up capability” as the companies build rocket-and-capsule launch systems to return astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) from U.S. soil for the first time since NASA’s Space Shuttle program went dark in 2011.

The U.S. space agency has since had to rely on Russia’s Roscosmos program to ferry astronauts to the orbital space station at a cost of roughly $80 million (£62.1 million) per seat, NASA has said.

After 2019 there are no seats available on the spacecraft for U.S. crew, and a NASA advisory panel recommended on Friday that the U.S. space program develop a contingency plan to guarantee access to the station in case technical problems delay Boeing and SpaceX any further.

A NASA spokesman on Friday characterized a solicitation request NASA filed on Wednesday as a contingency plan. NASA said it could buy a seat for one astronaut in the fall and another seat in the spring of 2020.

“The absence of U.S. crew members at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state,” NASA wrote in its solicitation on Wednesday.

NASA awarded $6.8 billion to SpaceX, founded by Tesla Inc Chief Executive Elon Musk, and aerospace giant Boeing to develop separate launch systems to fly astronauts to space, but both companies have faced technical challenges and delays.

NASA announced another slip last week, citing concerns for both contractors such as the need to complete hardware testing and other factors. The U.S. space agency said SpaceX was now targeting March 2 instead of Feb. 23 for its un-crewed Crew Dragon test flight, with its astronaut flight coming in July.

NASA said Boeing’s un-crewed CST-100 Starliner would fly no sooner than April, with Boeing’s crewed mission is currently slated for August.

“Typically, problems will be discovered during these test flights,” NASA wrote.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Orlando, Florida; editing by Eric M. Johnson and G Crosse)

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Next month’s SpaceX launch could help end America’s reliance on Russian rockets

On March 2, if the weather proves favorable, SpaceX will finally launch its first spacecraft designed for human spaceflight, the Crew Dragon (a.k.a …

It’s been nearly eight years since American astronauts last launched into space from American soil. When NASA shuttered the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, it did so under the hopes that the private industry would be willing and able to take a huge step forward and partner with the agency to ferry astronauts back and forth between the International Space Station, as well as other potential low Earth orbit destinations.

That vision is finally on the cusp of becoming reality. It just took much longer than we all hoped it would.

On March 2, if the weather proves favorable, SpaceX will finally launch its first spacecraft designed for human spaceflight, the Crew Dragon (a.k.a Dragon 2), into space, as part of its partnership with NASA under the Commercial Crew Program. There won’t be any humans going up on this test flight (called Demo-1). But if everything goes right, it will be the prelude to a crewed test flight (Demo-2) featuring two astronauts in July, finally ending eight years of American reliance on Russia for its human spaceflight needs, and returning the country to independence once again.

“There’s a mixture of feelings,” says Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. “I don’t want to speak for the entire team, but for me personally, I have a combination of excitement and a little bit of anxiousness.”

How did we come to rely on Russian rockets?

Even before formally retiring the Space Shuttle program, NASA was already thinking about potential replacements. In 2010, after ending the Constellation program and its plans to send humans back to the moon, the Obama administration decided to shift the agency’s human spaceflight focus toward developing the Space Launch System and the Orion deep space crew vehicle. This supported the more general goal to send humans to Mars sometime during the 2030s.

And while NASA focused on developing and testing new deep space exploration technologies, it could turn over its needs for getting to low Earth orbit to the private industry, which could ferry astronauts to and from the ISS and find its “space legs” as it developed its own technologies. The agency would simply partner with Russia in the meantime, getting its astronauts to the ISS through Soyuz missions launching from Kazakhstan for a few years. It was a win-win all around.

Thus, in 2014, the Commercial Crew Program was officially born. The agency signed contracts with Boeing and SpaceX, tasking the companies with developing and testing new spacecraft that could basically work as a lower-cost, more efficient, safer replacement of the Space Shuttle. At the time, NASA was already seeing great success with its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program, which effectively contracted out ISS cargo shipment needs to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (later Orbital ATK, and recently bought by Northrop Grumman). It was an extraordinarily successful partnership, and NASA believed it could emulate this same paradigm as a part of its human spaceflight operations as well.

Unfortunately, CCP has been plagued with delays from virtually the outset. The original goal was to have SpaceX and Boeing strike for their first crewed missions by 2017. Two years later, both companies have yet to launch even an empty spacecraft into orbit. SpaceX’s delay of Demo-1 into next month seems more like business as usual at this point. (Boeing is aiming for its first uncrewed flight test no earlier than April, and its first crewed flight to take place in the late summer.)

Meanwhile, the U.S. is heading into its eighth year of procuring seats aboard Soyuz launches for getting its astronauts to the space station—and that has been far from a peaceful, reliable process. Amidst deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow, NASA and Roscosmos (Russia’s space agency) have done their best to keep ISS operations running smoothly. But Russia’s decreased involvement with the ISS has limited the number of seats available to the U.S., at increased prices that have cost NASA billions of dollars. SpaceX and Boeing don’t shoulder all the blame (Congress is arguably most at fault for inadequately funding the CCP early on), but they may already be feeling the effects of those frustrations: according to SpaceNews, schedule certainty was a factor for NASA choosing to go with United Launch Alliance instead of SpaceX for the upcoming Lucy mission to the Trojan asteroids near Jupiter, launching in October 2021. (SpaceX has chosen to protest the contract, arguing it could launch Lucy for less money.)

The bottom line is, American access to the ISS has been relegated to a precarious and costly situation. NASA’s access to the space station through Russia effectively ends in September, so any more delays could mean the U.S. loses access to the ISS entirely for a while.

What’s taking so long?

McAlister counters that while the perception from the outside is a program riddled with delays and waiting, the mood behind the scenes is genial and relatively calm. “When you look historically at how long human spaceflight hardware takes to be developed, [CCP] has been a fairly quick development cycle,” he says. “I know we’ve slipped the schedule a couple of times, so people may think, ‘oh they’ve taken so long,’ but… we signed the contracts in September 2014. Four years later, to be talking about having our first test flights, really isn’t that long in the grand scheme things.”

It’s true: While the Crew Dragon is ostensibly an upgraded version of the original Dragon vehicle, it needs to be ready to house people for spaceflight—and that takes time. Companies must design comfortable and safe seating, an escape system, windows, dashboards for the crew to use to manage controls, and much more.

And from NASA’s perspective, the delays are not all that unexpected. “Generally,” says McAlister, “in the aerospace industry, we tend to like to establish aggressive schedules upfront.” This provides an incentive for the teams to move efficiently and leaves ample time for adjustments when obstacles and challenges come up. This mindset also explains why NASA frequently pushes back its own deadlines. The culture McAlister and his team have tried to instill is inspired by the late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “Be quick—but don’t hurry.”

Not even this year—the year of the test flights—is immune to schedule changes. “This next year is probably going to be one of the hardest years we’ve ever had,” says McAlister. “We’re going to have issues we need to address. Every launch has risks associated with their schedules.”

Has it been worth it?

That depends on how you look at it. There’s no question both the Crew Dragon and the Starliner will act as cost-efficient flight systems in the long run. The average Space Shuttle launch cost about $450 million. Neither new spacecraft should cost that much—SpaceX in particular, thanks to its masterful work in proving the viability of reusable rockets. Every launch of the Falcon 9 rocket (which will take Crew Dragon into space) costs only about $62 million. Astronaut launches will presumably not cost much more.

In addition, both spacecraft will feature much better safety systems than were available on the Space Shuttle and other previous spaceflight systems. Both utilize what’s called a “pusher escape system” for launch abort sequences. In this scenario, during an anomaly that requires an abort, the system pushes the spacecraft away from the high-powered engines instead of pulling them, so you still have a propulsion system for maneuvering and altitude adjustment as the crew capsule returns to Earth.

Lastly, the CCP’s approach means NASA doesn’t have to rely on a single launch provider for its needs. “I think that has been a huge benefit for NASA,” says McAlister. It’s important for the government to not be dependent on any single system [alone].”

The recent mid-flight abort of the Soyuz MS-10 launch to the ISS underscores this point. The Russian Soyuz spaceflight system is one of the safest crew vehicles around, having been used for decades on hundreds of successful launches in orbit. “Even with all that flight heritage, it had a failure,” says McAlister. “When you’re depending on a single supplier… it really increases risks.” Multiple suppliers mean multiple options when one company runs into a hiccup.

Everyone is anxiously waiting for the U.S. to return to spaceflight independence, but the CCP’s success could extend beyond just ISS missions. If Demo-1 goes smoothly and the rest of the year’s flights manage to send astronauts into space and back, the agency might very well start asking whether it can expand these types of partnerships to other areas of spaceflight as well, and leverage these technologies for other capabilities. NASA’s already developing its own spaceflight systems for future travel to the moon, Mars, and potentially elsewhere, but it’s certainly not outlandish to think a future version of the Crew Dragon—one designed for deep space missions—could play a role in those plans. For now, let’s just hope next month’s launch goes off without a hitch.

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