SpaceX Drops Protest Over Contract for Lucy Mission

An artist’s concept of the Lucy Mission. (Credit: SwRI)

SpaceNews reports that SpaceX has dropped it protest of NASA’s decision to award a launch contract to United Launch Alliance (ULA) for its Lucy asteroid mission.

SpaceX did not disclose the reason it withdrew the protest, and a company spokesperson declined to comment when contacted by SpaceNews about the withdrawal. According to GAO’s website, SpaceX filed a separate protest over the same contract March 25, which was also withdrawn April 4. The company also declined to comment on the difference between the two protests.

When it filed the protest in February, SpaceX argued it could perform the same mission for a “dramatically lower” price than the $148.3 million value of the ULA contract. “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,” a company spokesperson said then. ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

ULA said that it was selected in part because it offered schedule assurance for the mission. Lucy must launch during a 20-day window in October 2021 in order to carry out its complex trajectory of flybys of six Trojan asteroids and one in the main asteroid belt. Should the launch miss that window, the mission cannot be flown as currently planned.

GAO Removes Weather Satellite Program From High-Risk List

This visible image on Oct. 6 at 1:00 p.m. EDT from NOAA’s GOES-East satellite shows Hurricane Matthew as it regained Category 4 Hurricane Status. (Credits: NASA/NOAA GOES Project)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has concluded that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) have made “sufficient progress” in mitigating potential gaps in weather data that would have resulted “in less accurate and timely weather forecasts and warnings of extreme events—such as hurricanes and floods.”

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GAO: DOD Needs to Collect & Maintain Better Data on Space Acquisition Workforce

The Department of Defense (DOD) does not routinely monitor the size, mix, and allocation of the 8,000 personnel who are involved in space acquisition activities, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

[Full Report — PDF]

The audit found the DOD’s workforce data systems are not configured to identify personnel working on space acquisition activities across the department’s sprawling bureaucracy.

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GAO: NASA has Regressed on Controlling Costs, Schedule Slips

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA has regressed in its efforts to control cost growth and schedule delays on its various high-risk projects, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“Following several years of continuing a generally positive trend of limiting cost growth and schedule delays for its portfolio of major projects, we found that NASA’s average launch delay increased from 7 to 12 months between May 2017 and May 2018,” the report stated. “Further, the overall development cost growth increased from 15.6 percent to at least 18.8 percent over the same time period.”

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SpaceX Protests NASA Contract Award to ULA

An artist’s concept of the Lucy Mission. (Credit: SwRI)

SpaceNews reports that SpaceX has filed a protest over NASA’s decision to award an $148.3 million contract to rival United Launch Alliance for the launch of the Lucy asteroid mission.

“NASA has issued a stop work order on the agency’s Lucy mission after a protest of the contract award was filed with the Government Accountability Office,” agency spokesperson Tracy Young said Feb. 13. “NASA is always cognizant of its mission schedule, but we are not able to comment on pending litigation.”

SpaceX confirmed that the company was protesting the contract. “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 company spokesperson said in a statement to SpaceNews.

“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,” the spokesperson added. ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin….

A key factor in the decision to award the contract to ULA was schedule certainty. Lucy has a complex mission profile with a series of flybys in order to visit several asteroid either leading or following Jupiter in its orbit around the sun. That results in a launch window that is open for only about 20 days in October 2021. Should the launch miss that window, the mission cannot be flown as currently planned.

The Government Accountability Office has until May 22 to render a decision.

Boeing Suffers Setback During CST-100 Starliner Abort Test

CST-100 Starliner with Atlas V booster. (Credit: Boeing)

Media are reporting that Boeing suffered a setback recently when testing CST-100 Starliner’s emergency abort system at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Here’s an account from The Washington Post:

The spacecraft Boeing plans to use to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station suffered a significant setback when, during a test of its emergency abort system in June, officials discovered a propellant leak, the company confirmed.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Boeing said it has “been conducting a thorough investigation with assistance from our NASA and industry partners. We are confident we found the cause and are moving forward with corrective action.”

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Trump Nominates Senate Staffer for NASA Deputy Administrator

President Donald J. Trump today nominated a long-time Senate staffer who has neither a technical nor scientific background to be the space agency’s deputy administrator.

James Morhard, who is currently the U.S. Senate’s Deputy Sergeant at Arms, was nominated for the position. The decision represents a defeat for NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who had publicly advocated on behalf of Dr. Janet Kavandi, a former astronaut, engineer and analytical chemist who is director of the NASA Glenn Research Center.

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An Update on the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program

Two Launches in One Week: On Aug. 14, 2017, a Falcon 9 launch vehicle lifts off Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in the photo on the left. It was carrying a Dragon resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station. In the image on the right, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Aug.18, 2017 placing in orbit NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite. (Credit: NASA/Tony Gray and Sandra Joseph)

Report to Congressional Committees

Weapon Systems Annual Assessment
Knowledge Gaps Pose Risks to Sustaining Recent Positive Trends

Government Accountability Office
April 2018
Full Report (PDF)

Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Program

Technology Maturity, Design Stability, and Production Readiness

All but one (14 of 15) of ULA’s launch vehicle variants—which are based on payload fairing size and number of strap-on solid rocket boosters used—and two variants of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 have flown at least once, demonstrating technology maturity. For design stability and production readiness, the program assesses launch vehicles using Aerospace Corporation’s “3/7 reliability rule.” Once a variant is launched successfully three times, its design can be considered stable and mature. Similarly, if a variant is successfully launched seven times, both the design and production process can be considered stable and mature.

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GAO: Restore-L Mission Schedule is Lagging

Artist’s conception of Restore-L servicing satellite with Landsat 7. (Credit: NASA)

NASA’s Restore-L project — which aims to demonstrate on-orbit satellite servicing by refueling the Landsat 7 satellite — is running behind schedule due to funding and technical issues, according to an audit from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

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NASA ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar Satellite Moving Forward

NASA ISRO synthetic aperture radar satellite (Credit: NASA)

A joint collaboration between NASA and ISRO to orbit an advanced synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellite is moving forward toward a 2021 launch date as engineers at the two agencies learn to work together effectively, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

“The NISAR project continues to track a risk that process differences between NASA and its development partner, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), could negatively affect cost and schedule, but a recent project assessment concluded that collaboration between the two organizations has been effective,” the GAO report stated.

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GAO: JPL’s SWOT Mission Planning to Launch Ahead of Schedule

SWOT satellite (Credit: NASA JPL)

A Franco-American mission that will conduct a global survey of the Earth’s surface water is moving toward launching a year earlier than planned despite encountering technical challenges and and workforce shortages, according to an assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite “will use its wide-swath radar altimetry technology to take repeated high-resolution measurements of the world’s oceans and freshwater bodies to develop a global survey,” the report stated.

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Lucy Asteroid Mission Moves Toward 2021 Launch

Southwest Research Institute is leading NASA’s Lucy mission, which will launch in 2021 for the first reconnaissance of the Trojans, a population of primitive asteroids orbiting in tandem with Jupiter. In this artist’s concept (not to scale), the Lucy spacecraft is flying by Eurybates, one of the six diverse and scientifically important Trojans to be studied. (Credit: SwRI)

The first mission to explore Trojan asteroids that orbit in tandem with Jupiter is moving forward toward a late 2021 launch date using heritage hardware that has already been tested in space, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

“Project officials characterize the Lucy design as low risk because it does not require development of any critical technologies and has a high heritage design,” the GAO found. “For example, these officials stated that Lucy’s design has the same architecture as prior NASA projects such as Juno and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN).

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NASA Canceled Radiation Budget Instrument Due to Budget, Technical Issues

Radiation Budget Instrument (Credit: Harris Corporation)

Excessive cost growth, technical issues and poor contractor performance were the key factors that caused NASA to cancel a scientific instrument that had been set to fly aboard NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System 2 (JPSS-2), according to an assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

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NASA’s Psyche Mission Aims to Launch Ahead of Original Schedule

NASA’s Psyche mission to a distant metal asteroid will carry a revolutionary Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) package. This artist’s concept shows Psyche spacecraft with a five-panel array. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin)

The Psyche asteroid project is a rarity among the 17 major NASA projects that were recently assessed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO): it’s actually aiming to launch ahead of schedule.

“NASA selected the project’s 2023 launch proposal, but later directed the project to work to an accelerated launch readiness date of August 2022,” the GAO report stated. “The accelerated launch date will allow Psyche to arrive at the asteroid over 4 years earlier than the original timeline due to a quicker flight.”

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Mars Needs Women — NASA Needs Everybody

Credit: American International Television

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In the 1967 film, Mars Needs Women, a team of martians invades Earth to kidnap women to help repopulate their dying species. Shot over two weeks on a minuscule budget and padded out with stock footage, the movie obtained cult status as one of those cinematic disasters that was so bad it was unintentionally hilarious.

A half century later, NASA finds itself in a not entirely dissimilar situation. Only this problem is not nearly as funny.

The space agency lacks sufficient personnel with the proper skill sets to undertake its complex missions to the moon, Mars and beyond. A number of key programs have been affected by the shortfall already.

NASA’s workforce is also aging. More than half the agency’s employees are 50 years and older, with one-fifth  currently eligible for retirement. Finding replacement workers with the right mix of skills is not always easy as NASA faces increased competition from a growing commercial space sector.

The space agency is addressing these challenges, but it’s too early to tell how successful these efforts will be, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

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