NASA’s moon mission is waiting on a fight over meetings

SpaceX’s Starship, which was chosen by NASA to deliver astronauts to the moon, on a launch pad in Texas.
SpaceX’s Starship, which was chosen by NASA to deliver astronauts to the moon, on a launch pad in Texas.
Image: SpaceX
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What’s holding up US plans to go back to the moon? An argument over pre-flight meetings.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson says he can’t firm up plans to return Americans to the moon by 2024 until a lawsuit against the space agency, brought by Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin, is resolved. The suit contends that NASA should not have chosen Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build a lander that will carry astronauts to the lunar surface.

Specifically, the suit hinges on “flight readiness reviews,” or FRRs, which are comprehensive briefings about every aspect of a space mission. They take place soon before a launch and represent the final approval to go ahead with a mission.

These meetings are important because of the relationship between NASA and its contractors. The agency is using the public-private partnership model that entails giving contractors limited guidance and paying them a fixed price. Since the agency is not doing as much of the nitty-gritty design work, FRRs offer a key opportunity for oversight.

Bezos and company say that SpaceX is risking the safety of astronauts because it will not do enough of these reviews. Musk says that “we always do flight readiness reviews.”

Who’s correct?

The debate is driven by SpaceX’s moon lander concept

NASA’s plan to get to the moon involves launching astronauts in a spacecraft called Orion. Unlike the Apollo missions, when the astronauts brought a lander along with them, the next generation of moon explorers will meet a separate lander vehicle orbit above the moon, which will shuttle them back and forth to the surface below. NASA asked private companies to build it.

SpaceX proposed its newest vehicle, a large spacecraft called Starship. To do so, SpaceX will need to refuel the Starship in orbit before it goes to the moon and back; that will require the launch of fourteen “tanker” Starships, and another spacecraft whose description is redacted in public documents, but is widely believed to be some kind of propellant depot. (All those launches are required because of how much propellant large spacecraft require to break free of Earth’s gravity.)

The plan is to have Starship fly to orbit, fuel up, and then meet the astronauts in lunar orbit. And, according to the Government Accountability Organization, SpaceX proposed to NASA that there would be one flight readiness review before the launch of the Starship being used to transport astronauts; the rest of the fueling infrastructure would already be on orbit, and no astronauts would be onboard Starship until it actually met them in deep space.

Two competing bids, one from a consortium led by Blue Origin and another from an Alabama company called Dynetics, proposed smaller, more traditional lunar landers. Blue Origin has not settled if its lander will launch on one huge rocket or on three medium-sized vehicles.  Dynetics’ lander will get to the moon with one launch but needs to be refueled in orbit by four tanker spacecraft.

NASA hoped to choose two contractors to build moon landers, but had only received funding from Congress to pick one. The space agency ultimately selected SpaceX’s proposal, saying it was the cheapest and the most technically sound. But, again according to the GAO, NASA officials asked SpaceX to add two more FRRs to its plan, so that each vehicle type would be scrutinized before it launched—one review for the tankers, one for the potential depot, and one for the Starship that will carry the astronauts.

Is SpaceX doing reviews for every launch, or just three for 16 launches?

The other two contractors challenged the decision before the GAO. The protestors argued that because NASA did not require an FRR before every SpaceX launch, the company received an unfair advantage. The GAO agreed that NASA didn’t stick to the original wording of its proposal when it allowed SpaceX to have three reviews, but said that didn’t change the course of the contract and rejected the challenge. Blue Origin has now escalated the dispute to federal court.

Here’s where the mystery comes in: SpaceX distributed a briefing document to lawmakers, whose decisions about NASA funding will influence the agency’s choices, stating that “SpaceX will—and has always been planning to—conduct an FRR with full NASA insight and participation prior to every Starship HLS launch.” Elon Musk also tweeted that “we always do flight readiness reviews! This argument makes no sense.”

If that’s the case, perhaps the lawyers SpaceX hired to make its case to the GAO should be concerned that they were unable to convey this. SpaceX did not answer questions attempting to tease out the distinction between Musk’s argument and the GAO’s assessment of the contract.

To interpret the difference between GAO’s three FRRs and SpaceX’s claim that the company always does flight readiness reviews, you have to parse the semantics: When the briefing document says “Starship HLS launch,” it appears to refer to the human lander spacecraft, and not the other launches. SpaceX has always intended to have an FRR for that specific vehicle.

SpaceX seems to be arguing that the tanker spacecraft and potential fuel depot are infrastructure that NASA doesn’t need to worry as much about, while the vehicle that will actually carry astronauts deserves fuller scrutiny. In a court filing unsealed today, the company’s attorneys made the case that “supporting spacecraft” did not fall under the FRR requirements outlined in NASA’s request for bids.

New visions of space transportation mean new rules

The argument over the FRRs mostly reflects the ambition of SpaceX’s plans compared to its rivals. Blue Origin and Dynetics proposed fewer launches to get their smaller lander vehicles to the moon.

That is, in part, why the GAO rejected their challenge: It wasn’t clear why SpaceX received an advantage when NASA allowed it to have three FRRs. Blue Origin would only be launching its lander vehicle, in either one or three pieces, and no fueling infrastructure. Dynetics’ proposal, meanwhile, had other weaknesses that outweighed its concerns about FRRs.

SpaceX’s latest filing says that NASA expressly gave bidders “the liberty to propose a different architecture,” and the company did so. All the meeting madness holding up NASA’s plans doesn’t seem to rise to the level of disregard for safety, as Blue Origin alleges, but we won’t know for sure until the lawsuit is over and all the facts come out.

While much of the court docket is sealed, the parties are currently debating what kind of records the judge will review, with Blue Origin seeking to obtain NASA emails, and other documents and SpaceX saying those additional records are unnecessary. One the administrative record is settled, a judge will determine if Blue’s challenge has merit.

This story has been corrected to clarify the moon landing plans developed by Blue Origin and Dynetics.