WASHINGTON — With NASA “down to the wire” in reviewing lunar lander proposals, agency officials say a priority is to maintain competition for a later procurement.
During a session of the 47th Spaceport Summit Feb. 24, Mark Kirasich, director of the advanced exploration systems division at NASA, said the agency was continuing to review proposals submitted by the three companies that received Human Landing System (HLS) contracts last year. Those proposals are for what NASA calls “Option A” of the program, funding continued development of landers and an initial demonstration.
He reiterated that NASA expects to make up to two awards in the near future. “We won’t carry all three systems to flight demonstration,” he said. “We will make up to two Option A awards here hopefully within just the next few weeks. We’re getting down to the wire.”
NASA previously anticipated making those awards by now. In late January, NASA notified the three HLS teams, led by Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX, that the agency was extending the base period of their contracts by two months, through the end of April. The extension would allow the agency to complete its assessment of the Option A proposals and “preserve the ability to seamlessly transition” from the current contract for the selected companies.
“It’s a hard decision because we have three incredible proposals,” he said. “We should be on our way with a selection announcement in just the very near future.”
Another reason why the selection may be hard is the shortfall in funding for HLS. NASA received $850 million for the program for fiscal year 2021, only about one-fourth of its original request. That’s forced NASA to revise its plans to the program, and is a key reason why the previous goal of a 2024 human landing is now widely considered out of reach.
“We got a lot of money from Congress this year,” Kirasich said, while acknowledging it fell short of original plans. “We’re looking at that very closely.”
Both he and Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, emphasized that maintaining competition is a key part of the program. “Competition — having multiple suppliers for us — is an extremely important principle. It’s on our minds,” he said.
Lueders noted that the Option A awards are for development of landers through an initial demonstration only. A separate procurement will follow for landing services “over the next year,” she said, analogous to how the initial Commercial Orbital Transportation Services awards to support development of commercial cargo vehicles for the International Space Station were followed by separate Commercial Resupply Services contracts for cargo transportation services.
“People mix those two up,” she said, confusing the Option A awards with later contracts for lander services. “This initial award is just for us investing in a demonstration for a lander.”
“Our big challenge is, how do we continue to make sure that we have competition for when we’re doing our services awards for the landers?” she said. “Competition is very important.”