What's keeping US intentions to return to the moon? An argument over pre-flight meetings.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson says he can't put up plans to return Americans to the moon by 2024 until a lawsuit against the space agency, filed by Jeff Bezos' space firm Blue Origin, is resolved. The suit claims that NASA should not have chosen Elon Musk's SpaceX to construct a lander that would transport astronauts to the lunar surface.
The suit focuses on flight readiness assessments, or FRRs, which are comprehensive briefings about every aspect of a space mission. They take place shortly before a launch and represent the final approval for pursuing id's mission.
Because of the relationship between NASA and its employees, these meetings are crucial. The agency is utilizing the public-private partnership model, which entails granting contractors limited guidance and paying them a fixed price. Because the agency does not perform as much of the nitty-gritty design work, FRRs offer a significant opportunity for oversight.
SpaceX, according to Bezos and the company, is putting a danger on astronaut safety because it will not do enough of these tests. We always do flight readiness checks, Musk adds.
Who is right?
SpaceX's moon lander concept is a central component of the debate.
NASA's mission to reach the moon involves launching astronauts in a spaceship called Orion. The next generation of moon explorers will encounter a separate lander vehicle orbit above the moon, which will transport them back and forth to the surface below, unlike the Apollo missions. NASA asked private businesses to build it.
SpaceX's newest vehicle, a large spaceship dubbed Starship, was proposed by Spacex. SpaceX will need to refuel the Starship in orbit before it goes to the moon and back; this will require the launch of fourteen tanker Starcraft and another spacecraft whose description is redacted in public documents but is widely believed to be a propellant depot. (All those launches are required owing to how much propellant big spaceships require to be free of Earths gravity.)
The goal is to require Starship to orbit, fuel up, and then meet the astronauts in lunar orbit. SpaceX also proposed to NASA that there would be a flight readiness review before the launch of the Starship being used to transport astronauts; the rest of its fueling infrastructure would already be on orbit, and no astronaut would ever be aboard Starcraft until it actually met them in deep space, according to the Government Accountability Organization.
Two competing bids, one from a consortium led by Blue Origin and another from an Alabama firm called Dynetics in 2004, proposed smaller, more traditional lunar landers, which require just one launch before meeting up with the astronauts.
NASA had hoped to select two contractors for moon landers, but had only received funding from Congress to pick one. The space agency finalized SpaceXs proposal, stating that it was the lowest and most technically sound. NASA officials, however, requested SpaceX to add two more FRRs to its plan, so that each vehicle type would be examined before it was releasedone review for the tankers, one for potential depot, and one in the Starship that will transport the astronauts, according to the GAO.
Is SpaceX conducting reviews for every launch, or just three for 16 launches, for each launch?
The other two contractors challenged the decision before the GAO. The protestors argued that since NASA did not require an FRR before every SpaceX launch, the firm was unfairly benefited. The GAO agreed that NASA didn't stick to the original formula of its proposal when it allowed SpaceX to review three times, but that it didnt alter the contract's course and rejected the challenge. The dispute has now been escalated to federal court, according to Blue Origin.
Where the mystery comes in: SpaceX sent a briefing document to lawmakers, whose decisions about NASA funding will influence the agency's choices, saying, SpaceX willand has always been planned toconduct an FRR with full NASA insight and participation prior to every Starship HLS launch. Elon Musk also stated, we always conduct flight readiness reviews! This argument makes no sense.
If that's the case, the lawyers SpaceX hired to present its case to the GAO should be concerned that they weren't able to convey this. SpaceX didn't respond to inquiries that attempted to clarify the distinction between Musk's argument and the GAO'd view of the contract.
To interpret the distinction between GAO's three FRRs and SpaceX' claim that the business always conducts flight readiness tests, you must use the semantics: When the briefing document says Starship HLS launch, it appears to refer to the human lander spaceship and not the other launches. SpaceX has always intended to include an FRR for that particular vehicle.
SpaceX appears to be arguing that the tanker spacecraft and the possible fuel depot are infrastructure that NASA doesn't need to worry about, while the vehicle that will actually carry astronauts deserves more thorough scrutiny. The firm's lawyers made the claim in a court filing unsealed today, that "supporting spacecraft" did not fall under NASA'S bidder requirements.
New visions of space transportation mean new rules that follow.
The argument over the FRRs reflects SpaceX's ambitions in comparison to its rivals, mainly because of its ambition. Blue Origin and Dynetics cited just one launch to get their considerably smaller lander vehicles to the moon, with only one pre-flight review each.
That is, in part, why the GAO rejected their challenge: It wasnt clear why SpaceX gained an advantage by having one or more flight readiness tests, since there was no way NASA could waive the only possible pre-launch review the protestors had planned for their own systems.
NASA explicitly granted bidders the option to design a new architecture, according to SpaceX's newest statement, which claims to have granted the company the freedom to propose o different architecture in its statement. As Blue Origin claims, all the meeting madness that holds up NASA's intentions doesn't seem to rise to the level of disrespect for safety, but we won'' not know for sure until the case is over and all facts come out.
While a large portion of the court docket is sealed, the parties are currently debated about what sort of documents the judge will review, with Blue Origin seeking to obtain NASA emails and other documents and SpaceX stating that additional records are unnecessarily required. Once the administrative record is settled, a judge will determine if Blue's challenge has merit.