Relativity and SpaceX bid for NASA commercial space station competition

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WASHINGTON — Launch companies Relativity Space and SpaceX were among the companies that submitted proposals last year to NASA for the initial development of commercial space stations.

NASA selected proposals led by Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman on Dec. 2 for Space Act-funded deals under the Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations, or CLD, program. The three companies will receive more than $400 million combined through 2025 to mature commercial space station designs that could succeed the International Space Station by the end of the decade.

At the time of the awards, NASA said only that it had received 11 proposals, but did not reveal who the other bidders were. “Virtually all of the proposals represented viable concepts for LEO commercial destinations,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA Headquarters, said in a call with reporters the day of the announcement.

NASA released on January 27 the source selection statement for the CLD competition, which identifies companies that have submitted proposals and describes the agency’s assessment of those proposals. This document confirmed that the agency had received 11 proposals, two of which, from DEHAS Limited and Hamon Industries, were deemed unacceptable by NASA for failing to “demonstrate significant concept definition and design maturation” and be ready for a Preliminary Design Review (PDR) at the end of the agreement. These proposals were not further evaluated.

NASA rated each proposal’s technical approach and business plans on a blue, green, white, yellow, and red color scale, representing very high, high, moderate, low, and very low levels of confidence, respectively. Proposals from three relatively unknown companies – Maverick Space Systems, Orbital Assembly Company and ThinkOrbital – received “red” ratings for both technical and business aspects, while a fourth, Space Villages, received a red technical rating and a yellow commercial.

The source selection statement revealed that SpaceX had also bid on the CLD program. The company did not disclose its proposal which, based on the statement, would be based on converting the lunar lander version of its Starship vehicle that it is developing for NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) program. .

The company gained strengths due to its technical maturity related to the HLS proposal and a “strong approach” to communications that seemed to be associated with SpaceX’s Starlink constellation. However, NASA assessed several weaknesses due to a lack of detail on its concept, including how it will accommodate payloads and scale an environmental control system for long-duration missions.

Commercially, SpaceX has been credited with “rapid development of Starship and a planned orbital mission in the coming year” as well as strong financial resources. However, NASA found a lack of a business strategy for the station, “which fails to meet the development goals of the LEO economy”. SpaceX also sought full reimbursement of its development costs from NASA “despite Starship’s private funding” and did not include a PDR in its proposal.

NASA gave SpaceX’s proposal a technical rating of yellow and a business plan rating of red, and did not consider the company for an award. SpaceX did not respond to questions on Jan. 27 about its proposal and any future plans for commercial space stations. The company rarely responds to media inquiries.

Relativity Space, which is developing the small Terran 1 launch vehicle and the larger Terran R reusable vehicle, also submitted a proposal that fared better than SpaceX. The company had not disclosed plans for a commercial space station and the source selection statement offers few details beyond a “reusable, returnable laboratory with return capability.”

The company gained technical strengths in NASA’s analysis for “proposed prototyping and iterative testing in hardware development,” as well as short but frequent missions that could be handled by a “simple” environmental control system. “. However, NASA said there was no plan for longer missions as well as a lack of design details and a lack of technical maturity for key technologies.

For Relativity’s business plan, NASA found strong technical management and good internal resources for station development, but a lack of business strategy and a “reliance on money and revenue that is not unfounded”. The company also included the development of a launcher in its proposal, which was outside the scope of the program. NASA gave Relativity a technical score of white and a business plan score of yellow.

Tim Ellis, chief executive of Relativity, told SpaceNews on Jan. 31 that the company had a “very early concept” for how the upper stage of its Terran R vehicle could be used as a commercial LEO destination, but declined to comment. ‘go into details. “Just because we didn’t place in the top three selected for this program, doesn’t mean we’ll be able to continue conversations with NASA leaders about the future vision of Relativity with a fully reusable Terran R,” a- he declared.

Score the first three

Blue Origin’s proposal for its Orbital Reef station received technical and commercial ratings of white in the initial analysis. The proposal won numerous technical strengths on its design and other aspects, including “the use of Amazon’s proven logistics approach, which increases the likelihood of successful management of ground equipment supporting crew and payload services”. However, some aspects, such as the use of inflatable modules and single-person spacecraft, were deemed to pose “significant risks to meeting the proposed schedule”.

The company was credited with an “ambitious” business strategy and a “significant level of private investment” during the initial period. However, he was criticized for seeking more funds from the CLD program than NASA said was available, a significant weakness the company later corrected.

The Nanoracks proposal for its Starlab space station also received white technical and commercial marks. It has gained strengths for technically mature designs and the incorporation of items like a centrifuge. However, NASA considered its proposed timeline “ambitious” and felt the company had overestimated the level of closure it could achieve in its life support system.

NASA said the proposal featured a solid business strategy and a “very significant” amount of private investment. However, he also cited a lack of funding details and “unrealistic revenue estimates”.

Northrop Grumman’s proposal received a technical score of green and a business score of yellow. The proposal had many technical strengths related to the maturity of its design and operations. However, NASA cited weaknesses in its ability to accommodate larger payloads and underestimated the amount of crew resupply services needed.

Its business plan was credited with an experienced management team and the likelihood of meeting its schedule based on the use of mature technologies. However, NASA raised concerns about its marketing strategy, lack of experienced business development staff and an “unsubstantiated” funding plan. The company increased its initially “very small” investment in the proposal later in its assessment.

NASA chose to award Space Act agreements to all three companies, finding that Blue Origin and Nanoracks were relatively similar in commercial and technical development. Northrop Grumman was technically more mature than the other two, but presented greater business development risks. Selecting it, the agency concluded, “provides this portfolio with a more balanced risk distribution to achieve at least one LEO trade destination during this project.”

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