Maxar PPE
Maxar's proposal to develop the Power and Propulsion Element offered a price far lower than competing companies and without any need to negotiate details of a contract. Credit: Maxar

WASHINGTON — An ability to get on contract quickly and a price far lower that other companies were key factors in NASA’s decision to award a contract to Maxar Technologies for the first element of the lunar Gateway, the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE).

A source selection statement released by NASA May 23 outlined the agency’s assessment of proposals for the PPE submitted by Maxar and four other companies: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). The document provides details on the technical and management aspects of the companies’ proposals as well as their price.

The document shows that Maxar, identified in the document as Space Systems Loral (SSL), the former name of its satellite manufacturing division, offered a price well below the other companies. While Maxar offered a firm fixed price of $375 million, other bids ranged from $565.9 million by Northrop to $768.8 million from SNC.

The companies were more closely matched on technical approach, which had an equal rating to price in the evaluation. All the companies received a “Very Good” rating in technical approach with the exception of SNC, which received a “Fair” rating.

Two other factors, management approach and commercial and partnering approach, had lesser weighting that, combined, were equal to either price or technical approach. Both Lockheed and Maxar received Very Good scores in both those categories, while Boeing received Good scores in both. Northrop received a Good score in management and Excellent in partnering, while SNC received a Fair score in management and Excellent in partnering.

Another factor that worked in Maxar’s favor was the ability to start work quickly. The broad agency announcement that NASA used to solicit proposals required companies to submit a signed “model contract” for the work. Companies could take exception to any required clauses but were warned that doing so “could have a negative impact on an Offeror’s potential selection for contract award.”

The source evaluation panel that reviewed the proposals concluded that Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop and SNC all contained exceptions to the model contract “that render them non-awardable without discussions and/or negotiations,” the document stated, “and only SSL’s proposal had the potential to be awardable without discussions or negotiations through clarification, which SSL provided in a timely fashion.”

Michele Gates, the director of the PPE program at NASA Headquarters and the selection authority for the competition, noted in the document that each company “offered unique value to NASA, aligned with NASA’s programmatic priorities, and would advance NASA’s deep space exploration objectives.” With a decision, though, to award just a single contract — which Gates said was in NASA’s “best interests” but without elaboration — Maxar stood out.

“I determine that the proposals submitted by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and SNC do not offer sufficient value to justify their proposed prices,” she concluded. “SSL’s proposal, on the other hand, offers abundant value for its proposed price.”

The document sheds some additional details on aspects of Maxar’s proposal for the PPE. Key strengths of the proposal include the use of a “well-proven, modular, heritage geostationary spacecraft product line” as well as augmentations to the baseline design, such as the ability to transfer a “substantial amount” of power to other Gateway modules and the ability to store more fuel than required.

The review did cite some weaknesses in the design, including “added complexity” in the vehicle’s electric propulsion system as well as adding a co-manifested lunar lander, a detail the company did not disclose in the May 23 announcement about the award. It also cited a concern about a lack of details about how the vehicle’s solar electric propulsion system, known as the Advanced Electric Propulsion System, will be integrated into the spacecraft, a weakness cited in several other companies’ proposals.

It also noted that Maxar planned to use a “currently unproven heavy-lift launch vehicle” for launching the PPE. The document didn’t identify the vehicle, but one of the Maxar’s partners is Blue Origin, which is developing the New Glenn heavy-lift rocket slated to enter service in 2021. The document noted, though, that Maxar planned to keep the PPE compatible with “multiple” alternative launch vehicles.

The document praised Maxar for its effort to demonstrate “multiple future commercial capabilities” with the PPE, including “effective commercial applications in the areas of heavy lift launch and cargo transfer to the lunar vicinity” that could support future NASA exploration needs. Technology developed for the PPE could also be implemented in its line of commercial communications satellites.

Mike Gold, a Maxar vice president who participated in a call with reporters about the PPE award May 23, emphasized that the company did not see this as a one-off program. “There’s going to be a lot of exciting opportunities for tugs in cislunar space,” he said. “We look at this as not just the PPE award, but the first PPE award, because we are looking at a robust cislunar economic market for both the government and the private sector.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...