NASA determining best course for commercial Lunar Gateway resupply

by Chris Gebhardt

Following a call late last year for companies to submit ideas on how NASA can best resupply its upcoming Lunar Gateway outpost, the U.S. federal space agency has taken its initiative one step further, releasing the draft resupply Request For Proposals it developed from the feedback received.

The Gateway Logistics Services draft document was released on Friday (14 June) to the commercial space industry and seeks input on the agency’s final Gateway resupply contract plan.

As part of the current feedback process, NASA will host an industry day forum on 26 June to answer questions, provide context to its plan, and discuss how it envisions the cooperation between NASA’s government SLS rocket and commercial rockets and capsules will work for the Gateway.

Companies have until 10 July to provide comments that will be reviewed (and some of them incorporated) into the Gateway logistics plan before NASA releases the finalized solicitation for companies to bid on fixed price resupply contracts to deliver supplies to the lunar outpost.

Gateway Logistics Services contract requirements:

Commercial resupply efforts of the Lunar Gateway follow the tremendous success of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program – which thus far has seen SpaceX and Northrop Grumman conduct 28 resupply missions to the International Space Station (17 from SpaceX with Dragon and 11 from Northrop Grumman with Cygnus).

Cygnus berthed to Node-1 nadir, where it will hopefully perform the first U.S. craft orbit raising of the Space Station since the Space Shuttle fleet’s retirement. (Credit: Nathan Koga for NSF/L2).

These 28 CRS missions followed Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration flights of Dragon and Cygnus, two of which (one from each vehicle) also delivered cargo to the ISS.

Now, NASA seeks to incorporate its cooperation with the commercial services realm from the very beginning of its Lunar Gateway.

“We’re asking industry to provide a spacecraft to deliver cargo and other supplies to the Gateway.  It will dock to the orbital outpost but will be responsible for generating its own power,” said Marshall Smith, Director of Human Lunar Exploration Programs at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“We’re using the Moon as a proving ground for Mars to develop the technologies and systems we need for exploration farther into the solar system, so we look forward to seeing how industry responds to our upcoming solicitation, and potentially awarding multiple contracts for this lunar service.”

To this end, NASA is creating the Gateway Logistics Services (GLS) arena that will oversee supply delivery efforts to the lunar outpost.

The draft Request For Proposals document, released by NASA last Friday, will form the basis for the formal Request For Proposals that companies will use later this summer to submit their bids for selection as part of the GLS program.

The draft document will be reviewed by commercial industry providers who will then submit feedback for NASA to consider as the agency formalizes the document.

While not official in its entirety, large portions of the document will remain unchanged or only undergo minor tweaks/clarifications at this point.

Thus, the draft provides excellent insight into services, pricing, and timelines that commercial companies will have to meet if selected to participate in the GLS offerings.

Of note, any company selected to fly GLS missions would receive a guarantee of two missions, minimum, and each awarded contract would not exceed $7 billion (USD).

The total number of contracts NASA can award is not constrained via the language in the draft GLS solicitation document.

Included in the draft is a proposed NASA requirement that any selected launch vehicle have completed “one successful flight of a common launch vehicle configuration before each Standard GLS Mission,” notes the draft GLS document.

This follows from a CRS requirement that the launch vehicles (in that case, the Falcon 9 and the Antares) have completed one successful flight prior to commencement of Station resupply efforts – a requirement completed via COTS demonstration flights.

Unlike the CRS contracts which did not carry a “one successful flight” requirement if changes to the launch vehicle were made after initial certification (both the Falcon 9 and the Antares underwent significant design changes after their CRS flights began – with some of those changes debuting on CRS flights), the draft GLS language seems to indicate that NASA would seek to prohibit launch vehicle design changes debuting on GLS contract flights.

If the draft language becomes formal, the GLS contracts would require a launch vehicle that undergoes a design change to complete one successful flight of those changes before its next GLS mission is allowed to proceed.

Additional GLS baseline mission requirements include a resupply vehicle’s ability to remain docked to the Lunar Gateway for one year of operations, provide and generate its own power while docked, and be capable of autonomous disposal at the end of its mission.

Moreover, NASA may seek to have resupply vehicles perform tasks “over and above baseline GLS mission requirements.”

These are referred to as Mission Unique Capabilities and include – in agreement with the contracted commercial provider – a requirement that a resupply vehicle remain docked to the Gateway for up to 6 months beyond the baseline one year requirement and that the resupply vehicle perform a “Fast Transit to Gateway” rendezvous profile.

The proposed Lunar Gateway (latest version) – envisioned by Nathan Koga for NSF/L2

Those are the two currently defined Mission Unique Capabilities; however, NASA’s draft GLS document notes that additional Mission Unique Capabilities – which will be defined “at a later date if needed” – may include: EVA Translation Path/Anchor Points; Extended visits beyond 3 years; late cargo load, Gateway refueling; additional payload power abilities; undocking, maneuver, and re-docking abilities; long-term habitation; and being co-manifested on an SLS launch.

Additionally, NASA is seeking the ability to have commercial launch vehicles – as part of a GLS contract – perform Specialized Delivery Missions, defined in the draft document as “Specialized logistic services for delivering other Gateway elements.”

This is significant as it signals a continued willingness on NASA’s part to forgo launching all/any Gateway elements on the agency’s own SLS rocket.

For a long time, the SLS was touted as the only vehicle capable of launching the Gateway – despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Earlier this year, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine finally publicly confirmed that SLS was neither crucial for the Gateway’s construction nor for launching crew on Orion and its European Service Module.

The latter part of that public admission was quickly walked back by the Administrator by stating that internal agency reviews revealed that only SLS could launch Orion and its European Service Module.

Looking back at Orion and its European Service Module from a viewpoint on one of four solar arrays. (Credit: Nathan Koga for NSF/L2)

Nonetheless, his statements were not walked back for Gateway modules and elements.

In fact, the first Gateway element, the Power and Propulsion Element, received its formal contract award in May – a contract that specifically stated that a launch vehicle would be determined at a later time.

Therefore, NASA is formally taking steps to define a set of parameters inside GLS missions to have Specialized Delivery Missions of Gateway elements/modules on commercial launch vehicles.

To this end, NASA is proposing a requirement that commercial launch vehicles have completed “three successful flights of a common launch vehicle configuration” before they are allowed to launch Gateway elements.

Launch window targets and postponement fees:

The draft document also reveals how launch window targets would be given within each contract flow.

Upon initialization of a GLS contract through L-12 months (Launch -12 months), a company would work toward a launch within a 90 day window.

Between L-12 months and L-6 months, that target launch window would be reduced to a 30 day period.

Beginning six months before launch and continuing through launch, companies would be required to target and meet a launch of that GLS mission within a 7 day window.

Within there, NASA or the Contractor can – through Grace Days – request a delay to the start of the target launch window of up to 150 days over the life of a specific GLS mission contract.

These Grace Days do not include “Excusable Delays” that are imposed “not due to the fault or negligence of NASA/Contractor.”

Such Excusable Delays include launch date changes imposed by the Eastern Range in Florida and launch vehicle failure investigations – the latter of which is acceptable only if “NASA retains its original position in the order of the queue sequence and that all data related to the failure investigation is made available to NASA without restriction.”

Outside of Grace Days and Excusable Delays, NASA or a Contractor can request additional delays to a launch of up to 18 months; however, daily Postponement Fees will be assessed to the party responsible for the requested delay – beit NASA or the Contractor.

The daily Postponement Fee (beyond Grace Days and Excusable Delays) from the commencement of a GLS contract through L-12 months is $1,000 USD per day.  

From L-12 months to L-6 months, the Postponement Fee increases to $10,000 per day.

The Postponement Fee from L-6 months to launch day is $20,000 per day.

If the Contractor is responsible for launch delays resulting in fees, NASA would subtract the applicable Postponement Fee from the Contractor’s next scheduled payment per the Milestone Payment Schedule and would also suspend that next milestone payment “for the length of the delay and then resume with all remaining milestones and payments shifted by the amount (length) of the delay.”

If NASA is responsible for launch delays incurring a fee, NASA would assess that fee to itself by paying the Contractor the agency’s postponement fee at the next Milestone Payment.

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