NASA selects Maxar to build first Gateway element

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Updated 6:15 p.m. Eastern.

LOS ANGELES — NASA has selected Maxar Technologies to develop the first element of its lunar Gateway, the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE), for launch in late 2022.

In a speech May 23 at the Florida Institute of Technology, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the agency picked Maxar to develop the spacecraft, which will provide electrical power for future elements of the Gateway and move the outpost through cislunar space using solar electric propulsion.

“This is a monumental achievement for this little agency,” he said in a speech that provided a broad overview of what is now known as the Artemis Program for returning humans to the Moon. “This is going to be the example of how we do things going forward, because if we’re going to get the next man and the first woman to the south pole of the Moon in 2024, we have to have this kind of urgency.”

The contract is a firm fixed-price contract with a total value of $375 million. The contract includes a 12-month base period and a series of options that covers the development, launch and in-space testing of the PPE. The element will be owned by Maxar throughout the contract, at the end of which NASA will have the option to purchase it for use on the Gateway. The $375 million contract value assumes all options, including purchase of the spacecraft, are exercised.

The award is a boon for Maxar, which once relied almost entirely on commercial satellite business, principally large geostationary communications satellites. The company has shifted to more government business, and different types of missions, as the commercial GEO market entered an extended drought. Maxar said the PPE will be based on the 1300-series satellite bus it also offers for commercial customers.

“Our power and propulsion element partnership enables NASA to leverage Maxar’s commercial capabilities to cost-effectively expedite plans for sustainable exploration of the moon, while also providing significant benefits to American industry,” said Dan Jablonsky, chief executive of Maxar, in a statement.

Maxar is partnering with Blue Origin and Draper on the PPE. In a call with reporters after the announcement, Maxar vice president Mike Gold said that Blue Origin will be working with “human-rated systems” for the spacecraft, while Draper will be responsible for navigation and trajectories for the spacecraft. “And I think you can expect more partners to join the team in the not too distant future.”

While Blue Origin is part of the team, Gold said that Maxar hasn’t selected a launch service provider for the PPE. The spacecraft will weigh 5,000 kilograms at launch, requiring the use of a large launch vehicle. “We look forward at looking at various options,” he said.

Path to the PPE

The award was the outcome of NASA and industry studies dating back two years, when NASA was considering what was then called the Deep Space Gateway in lunar orbit to support planning for future Mars missions. The PPE has remained a part of the Gateway as both its design and mission changed.

NASA awarded study contracts in November 2017 to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems), Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Space Systems Loral (now Maxar.) Some of those companies had been working on earlier concepts for the now-defunct Asteroid Redirect Mission, which would have used a robotic spacecraft also powered by solar electric propulsion to bring a small boulder from a near Earth asteroid back to cislunar space.

Last September, NASA issued a broad agency announcement (BAA) requesting proposals for the development and testing of the PPE. Under the BAA, NASA is not procuring the module itself, but rather supporting the construction and launch of the module, followed by a year of in-space testing. At the end of that year of tests, NASA has the option to then acquire the PPE for use in the Gateway.

Proposals were due to NASA in November, and the agency had planned to make awards in March. The five-week government shutdown delayed the award, and also delayed the expected launch date of the PPE from September to December 2022.

NASA gave companies flexibility to leverage existing commercial satellite designs for the PPE. “We realized that the Power and Propulsion Element was very similar to a communications satellite bus, so we purposely removed almost all of our typical requirements that we place for a human element, a power and propulsion bus, so we could take advantage of what the communications industry already has in place,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in February.

Michele Gates, NASA’s PPE director, said the agency selected Maxar’s proposed spacecraft because it “offered significant experience leveraged through heritage design and proven development approach” as well as “significant augmented performance” in areas like power generation and fuel storage. Those factors, as well as Maxar’s management approach to risk reduction, “were really outstanding components of this capability.”

NASA officials had previously suggested that it might procure more than one PPE, but elected to award a contract only to Maxar. Gates said that that Maxar proposal offered “abundant value to NASA” at the given price. Making only one award, she said, “was in the agency’s best interest.”

The contracts were submitted prior to the announcement in March that NASA would accelerate its timeline for landing humans on the moon from 2028 to 2024. That did not affect the procurement of the PPE itself, said Mike Barrett, PPE project manager at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. “We actually didn’t have to change any of the Power and Propulsion Element planning to support the ’24 landing because our launch date of ’22 is early enough to support that,” he said.

NASA’s plans for a 2024 human return require only a “minimal” Gateway, consisting of a PPE and a “mini hab” or utilization module that can serve as a docking node and habitat for visiting crews. NASA has not yet announced plans for how it will procure that other element, but companies who have been working on habitat designs have urged NASA to get the module under contract in the next year in order for it to be ready by 2024.