Main Engine Cut Off

Eschewing Cost-Plus, Lacking Vision

Jeff Foust, of SpaceNews, wrote about some Lunar Gateway updates from the NASA Advisory Council meeting last week. This piece in particular about the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) caught my eye:

For the PPE, NASA plans to develop the module in a public private partnership with industry. Once the module is launched and its performance demonstrated in space, NASA would have the option to then buy the module for use in the gateway.

Gates said that NASA expects to issue a draft solicitation for the PPE in April, with an industry day to take place in late April or early May. A final solicitation will then follow, with proposals due to NASA in late July.

Though it’s the same old guard working on PPE studies—Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada, and SSL—the eschewal of cost-plus contracting should not be overlooked. The backbone of the next great NASA human exploration project will be bought after its performance has been demonstrated in space. That’s a big change.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad:

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the agency would be open to selecting more than one proposal for development and in-space demonstration depending on what was proposed, and at what price.

“The architecture is open enough that we can tolerate more than one of these Power and Propulsion Elements in the vicinity of the moon, if we got the right prices and the right considerations,” he said. “The architecture is broad enough and open enough that we can accommodate more of these in orbit.”

In that approach, he said, one PPE would be used at the gateway. Additional PPEs could be used for other aspects of NASA’s lunar exploration campaign, such as serving as a communications relay around the moon. “We’ll see what we get in the proposals, we’ll see how the selection process moves forward,” he said. “It’s too early to say one way or the other.”

There still is no vision for or definition of what exactly the Lunar Gateway is, what it does, or how it will be used.

NASA needs to take some advice from Jeff Bezos. Not about launch vehicles, but about vision:

We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details.

In the Flexible Path era, NASA has always been flexible on both the vision and the details. That is why the human exploration program is floundering.