SpaceX Starship Landing Vehicle Leads & Lags In NASA Lander Proposal Evaluation

NASA's advanced electric (Hall effect) propulsion system. The system will power the Lunar Gateway's Power and Propulsion Element, and the landing vehicles discussed below have been evaluated on their ability to work with the outpost. Image Credit: Glenn Research Center/NASA

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At the end of last week, NASA confirmed that three companies would receive government funding to develop landing systems for astronauts. These systems will form the second stage of the United States government's plan of expanding human presence beyond earth, and they will work through NASA's plans to use heavy-lift launch vehicles to propel payloads beyond low earth orbit.

For the landing systems contract, NASA received proposals from five companies, and after evaluation, it eliminated two from this list. Subsequently, the agency's source selection authority for the human landing systems decided to award three contracts collectively worth $967 million to Dynetics, Blue Origin and SpaceX. As a result, the companies will develop landing systems ready for demonstration four years from now in 2024.

In response to NASA's request of developing a landing vehicle, Boeing, Blue Origin, Dynetics, SpaceX and Vivace corporation submitted their proposals last year. The agency had initially awarded 11 different contracts to companies for conducting research on the landing system, and the three chosen by NASA will be responsible for delivering astronauts to the lunar surface.

NASA plans to launch at least nine missions under the Artemis program, with the Artemis 3 mission being the program's second crewed flight and the first flight to successfully place astronauts on the lunar surface. The plans have been highlighted in the space agency's highlighted in the agency's Fiscal Year 2021 Summary Budget Brief.

SpaceX Continues To Leverage In-House Design Strengths and Past Performance To Gain Edge Over Competitors in NASA's Human Landing System Program

While initially, the three landing systems that will now commence development have a singular purpose of delivering astronauts to the lunar surface, over the long term, they will play a crucial part in creating what NASA officials and astronautic industry executives dub as a commercial space economy.

For the human landing system, SpaceX intends to use a variant of its under-construction dual-purpose launch vehicle dubbed Starship. To clear up any misconceptions about SpaceX's crucial product, readers are reminded to be aware of the fact that company executives use 'Starship' when referring to the combination of the vehicle's first-stage boosters and the second stage spacecraft; and when referring the second-stage spacecraft on its own.

As opposed to proposals from Blue Origin and Dynetics, SpaceX's Starship spacecraft is also likely to use the Starship launch vehicle's super heavy booster powered at its peak performance by 31 Raptor engines that each produce 2,000 kilo-newtons of thrust. On the other hand, the Integrated Lander Vehicle and the Human Landing System proposed by Blue Origin and Dynetics will be capable of working with Boeing and NASA's SLS Block-1B launch system.

The Block-1B is intended to power the fourth, fifth and sixth Artemis mission, and it replaces the Block 1's Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) with a more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) to increase payload mass injection to low earth orbit (LEO) and the moon's surface.

An image of the Raptor full-flow, staged-combustion, methane-fueled rocket engine visible from the bottom of SpaceX's SN4 Starship prototype. The Starship SN4 will be the first Starship prototype to conduct Raptor static fire and low-altitude test flights. SpaceX intends to build as many as 20 MK variants of Starship V1.0 as per details provided by company C.E.O Elon Musk. Image Credit: Elon Musk/Twitter

SpaceX and Dynetics compete through former's two redundant airlocks and latter's superior vehicle design for astronaut ease

When comparing the three companies' proposals, Mr. Jurczyk is keen to mention that each contractor's received rating is independent of its peers. In other words, this implies that a 'good' rating separately received by two companies in one area does not mean that their performance in it is comparable or of equal merit. For instance, if Blue Origin and Dynetics had both received a Very Good' for the evaluation's Technical Competency criteria, the assessment would not carry with it a conclusion that they had performed equally well.

Nevertheless, owing to the fact that all three companies intend to take a slice of the commercial space payload launch market by demonstrating their competency in this project and that they were evaluated for fulfilling NASA objectives, we believe that a cross-contractor comparison is merited. During their assessment, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics were evaluated through:

  • Technical (7 subfactors)
  • Price (No subfactor)
  • Management (7 subfactors)

The three companies being evaluated on these criteria resulted in them being rated as:

 SpaceX:Dynetics:Blue Origin:
Technical:AcceptableVery GoodAcceptable
Price:Reasonable and balanced. Total Evaluated Price lies below the 10th percentile when compared to the Independent Government Cost Estimate (IGCE).Reasonable and balanced. Total Evaluated Price lies below the 10th percentile when compared to the Independent Government Cost Estimate (IGCE).Blue Origin's final proposal reduced total price by $300 million following negotiations with NASA. The reduction led NASA to evaluate the Integrated Lander Vehicle's Total Evaluated Price as reasonable. Blue Origin's TEP is the highest among the three offers, as it lies in the 35th percentile of the Independent Government Cost Estimate (IGCE).
Management:AcceptableVery GoodVery Good
Blue Origin's BE4 Oxygen Rich Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Staged-Combustion rocket engine is capable of producing 550,000 Pounds/feet (2,400 KN) of thrust. In comparison, SpaceX's Raptor (which is a methane-fueled full-flow staged-combustion rocket engine) can produce 440,000 pounds/feet (2,000 KN) of thrust. Image Credit: Blue Origin

Power & Propulsion Design Risks Remain Significant Weak Points For All Three Human Landing System Contractors

The Technical approach's first subfactor evaluates contractors' ability to meet six requirements that cover (a) payload mass delivery to the lunar surface (b) payload mass delivery to lunar orbit, (c) extravehicular excursions, (d) HLS automated Rendezvous, Proximity Operations, Docking and Undocking (RPODU) with the lunar gateway and crewed staging vehicles (e) a vertical orientation when landed and (f) dormant lunar orbit operations. Within these six performance metrics, SpaceX exceeds NASA's performance thresholds in four areas (a), (b), (c) and (f), and it meets NASA thresholds in the rest.

The company's proposal also provides astronauts with two airlocks allowing them to comfortably put on and take off their suits – making them avoid the pitfalls of dust making its way inside joints and coating spacesuits.

Dynetics meets SpaceX head-on and garners a strong evaluation within the first Technical approach subfactor. The consortium exceeds NASA thresholds in payload mass delivery, dormant operations and EVA excursions, and it meets thresholds in RPODU, payload delivered to lunar orbit and the ability to maintain and obtain a vertical landing side orientation. Blue Origin's proposal is the weakest amongst the trio, with the Integrated Launch Vehicle meeting NASA requirements in subfactors (a) to (d) and exceeding habitation and landing orientation + accuracy requirements.

Yet, while NASA believes that  Starship's two redundant airlocks are a strength, the agency also believes that the Human Landing System proposed by Dynetics has a significant strength in the form of low distance between the extravehicular access (EVA) hatch and the lunar surface and optimal locations for the vehicle's controls and windows to facilitate crew visibility during landing.

Technical Subfactor 1SpaceXDyneticsBlue Origin
Significant Strengths 120
Concept image of Blue Origin's Blue Moon moon landing vehicle. The Blue Moon uses its ascent element manufactured by Lockheed Martin and its transfer element manufactured by Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems. NASA has found that the company's Integrated Landing Vehicle's Descent Element* for the HLS program achieves performance gains through complexity and no flight history. Blue Origin intends to address this, as highlighted below. Image Credit: Blue Origin

Moving forward from the first subfactor to the remaining six, all three companies' power and propulsion systems have been identified as a significant weakness by NASA under risk evaluation for Technical subfactor two. The agency highlights Blue Origin's system carries manufacturing, testing and integration risks due to low technological readiness; Dynetics PP&E systems rely on either undeveloped or immature technologies with the company's proposed development schedule not conforming with historic development timelines; and SpaceX's system, subsystems and Reaction Control Unit (RCU) are highly complex. SpaceX's highly technical landing, refueling and rendezvous systems earn a second 'significant weakness' rating from the agency in this area.

The remaining Technical subfactors earn Dynetics and SpaceX a significant strength for Sustainability, SpaceX and Blue Origin a significant strength for Early Systems Demonstration, Blue Origin a significant strength for launch and missions training and Dynetics a strength for Insight through the consortium's decision to provide NASA with insight into all phases of the Human Landing System's development amongst others.

HLS Technical Evaluation Subfactors 2-7.SpaceXDyneticsBlue Origin
Significant Strength213
Strength 120, N/A
Significant Weakness211

Within these remaining subfactors, it is important to keep in mind that both SpaceX and Blue Origin have promised extensive demonstrations before the 2024 launch deadline. To that end, SpaceX has promised to conduct a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Starship landing vehicle flight with the Falcon Heavy, a long duration orbital flight, a beyond-LEO flight and a lunar landing demonstration mission for 2022.

Blue Origin has promised to conduct an early flight demonstration of the Descent Element (DE)* of the Integrated Landing Vehicle. The test will be conducted at the same landing site for the 2024 crewed demonstration mission for the Human Landing System, and through it, the space company will prove to NASA that the product's propulsion sensors, descent/landing sensors, avionics and thermal controls meet the proposed design requirements.

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy (Block 5 shown above) while not directly a part of this conversation will nevertheless play an important role in developing the commercial space launch market through catering national security satellite launch contracts of the United States Air Force. This variant of the Falcon Heavy generates roughly 5.5 million pounds of thrust through its first stage. The first stage of SpaceX's Starship launch vehicle which is the center of today's discussion is capable of generating 16 million pounds of thrust via its 'Super Heavy' first launch stage. SpaceX/Twitter

Blue Origin aims at using HLS strengths to cater to commercial operations while balancing NASA needs

Given the fact that the Human Landing System is the part of NASA wider plans to establish life-support and other facilities for habitation on the lunar surface, the landing vehicles discussed in the agency's source selection statement and this piece are important parts in the larger scheme of affairs that will lay the base for a cislunar economy.

This economy consists of public and private sector payloads being delivered by American and other astronautic corporations to low earth, geostationary and other orbits. In pre-launch briefings for SpaceX's Commercial Crew Dragon demonstration mission due for launch on the 27th of this month NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine commented on this by remarking that not only will the commercial crew program introduce significant cost savings over the Space Shuttle, but that courtesy of the program and investments made in SpaceX, America has 70% of the global commercial launch market share.

Scanning last week's selection statement reveals that SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics all have strong plans for commercialization through their landing vehicles. NASA reveals that Blue Origin intends to target non-NASA customers such as collaborating space agencies and private sector companies to develop the cis-lunar economy. SpaceX, NASA believes, will enable the agency to successfully develop a lunar base, and the company's "substantial corporate contribution to fund significant aspects of this development effort" will make important contributions towards commercialization.

In his concluding remarks, Mr. Jurczyk weighs the risks of the program with its potential benefits by noting that the proposals carry the potential to reduce the costs and risks of deep space exploration over the long term.

A copy of the  Source Selection Statement for NextSTEP-2 Appendix H: Human Landing System Broad Agency Announcement NNH19ZCQ001K_APPENDIX-H-HLS can be accessed here.

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