We’ve known since July that Northrop Grumman would be building a Cygnus-derived habitat—the Habitation and Logistics Outpost, or HALO—for the Gateway, but that’s as much detail as we were given. The announcement of this contract award comes after two important Artemis updates: the initial human lander contracts were awarded at the end of April, and in early May it was quietly communicated that the first two Gateway elements would be integrated on the ground and launched together.
Importantly, this contract is only for work through 2020, culminating with Preliminary Design Review. That means there is going to be an additional contract or two for the development, launch, and checkout of the vehicle. This differs slightly from the contract for the first Gateway element, the Power and Propulsion Element (or PPE1), which was awarded to Maxar with a total value and structure specified—$375 million over a 12-month base period plus options beyond that.
The PPE was also planned to be owned by Maxar all the way through launch and lunar orbit operations, at which point it would be turned over to NASA if all went well. I wonder how that plan changes now that it will be integrated and launched with HALO.
NASA might be wondering the same, which could explain why this award was only for design work through Preliminary Design Review. But more realistically, the decision to structure the contract this way was likely a combination of reasons.
In the intense push for a 2024 landing on the Moon, NASA has been putting every penny possible towards the Human Landing System contracts, and that even included taking Gateway off the critical path for the first landing, which has obvious near-term cost savings.
Then the decision to combine the PPE and HALO into one vehicle and launch them together provided additional savings beyond that—it removes the need for an additional launch contract, removes significant complexity by only building one vehicle with guidance and navigation systems, and there is no need for rendezvous and docking systems since the vehicle will only ever be a docking target and not an active participant in docking.
Once all those changes and decisions were made, it seems as if NASA wanted to see how Human Landing System contracts shook out. Whatever money they had left over in the 2020 Gateway budget was then sent Northrop Grumman’s way. And with that, NASA has done all the budget work they can in 2020 for Artemis and Gateway.
Thus begins the battle for the 2021 budget, and that path leads directly through a pandemic-caused economic crash, a massive justice movement, and a Presidential election.
Pressure makes diamonds, or so NASA hopes.