Relativity and SpaceX bid on NASA commercial space station competition

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WASHINGTON — Launch companies Relativity Space and SpaceX were among the companies that submitted proposals last year to NASA for initial development of commercial space stations.

NASA selected proposals led by Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman Dec. 2 for funded Space Act Agreements as part of the Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations, or CLD, program. The three companies will get more than $400 million combined through 2025 to mature the designs of commercial space stations that could succeed the International Space Station by the end of the decade.

At the time of the awards, NASA would only say that it received 11 proposals, but did not disclose who the other bidders were. “Almost all of the proposals represented viable concepts for commercial LEO destinations,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA Headquarters, in a call with reporters the day of the announcement.

NASA released Jan. 27 the source selection statement for the CLD competition, which identifies the companies that submitted proposals and outlines the agency’s evaluation of those proposals. That document confirmed that the agency received 11 proposals, two of which, from DEHAS Limited and Hamon Industries, were deemed unacceptable by NASA for failing to “demonstrate significant concept definition and design maturation” and be ready for a preliminary design review (PDR) at the end of the agreement. Those proposals were not further evaluated.

NASA assessed the technical approach and business plans of each proposal on a color-coded scale of blue, green, white, yellow and red, representing very high, high, moderate, low and very low levels of confidence, respectively. Proposals from three relatively unknown companies — Maverick Space Systems, Orbital Assembly Company and ThinkOrbital — received “red” scores for both technical and business, while a fourth, Space Villages, received a red technical score and a yellow business score.

The source selection statement revealed that SpaceX also bid on the CLD program. The company had not disclosed its proposal that, based on the statement, would be based on converting the lunar lander version of its Starship vehicle it is developing for NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) program.

The company won strengths based on its technical maturity linked to HLS proposal and a “strong approach” to communications that appeared to be associated with SpaceX’s Starlink constellation. However, NASA assessed several weaknesses because of a lack of details about its concept, including how it will accommodate payloads and scale up an environmental control system for long-duration missions.

On the business side, SpaceX was credited for “rapid development of Starship and a planned orbital mission in the coming year” as well as strong financial resources. However, NASA found a lack of a business strategy for the station, “which fails to meet goals for developing the LEO economy.” SpaceX also sought full reimbursement of its development costs from NASA “despite leveraging private financing of Starship” and did not include a PDR in its proposal.

NASA gave SpaceX’s proposal a technical score of yellow and business plan score of red, and did not consider the company for an award. SpaceX did not respond to questions Jan. 27 about its proposal and any future plans for commercial space stations. The company rarely responds to media inquiries.

Relativity Space, which is developing the Terran 1 small launch vehicle and larger Terran R reusable vehicle, also submitted a proposal that fared better than SpaceX. The company had not disclosed plans for a commercial space station and the source selection statement offers few details beyond a “reusable and returnable lab with a return capability.”

The company won technical strengths in NASA’s analysis for “proposed iterative prototyping and testing in hardware development” as well as short but frequent missions that could be handled by a “simple” environmental control system. However, NASA said there was no plan for longer missions as well as a lack of details on the design and a lack of technical maturity for key technologies.

For Relativity’s business plan, NASA found strong technical management and good in-house resources for development of the station, but a lack of a business strategy and “reliance on cash and revenue that is unsubstantiated.” The company also included launch vehicle development in its proposal which was outside the scope of the program. NASA gave Relativity a technical score of white and business plan score of yellow.

Tim Ellis, chief executive of Relativity, told SpaceNews Jan. 31 that the company has a “very early concept” on how the upper stage of its Terran R vehicle could be used as a commercial LEO destination, but declined to go into details. “Just because we did not place in top three selected for this program won’t deter us from continuing conversations with NASA leadership on Relativity’s future vision with a fully reusable Terran R,” he said.

Scoring the top three

The Blue Origin proposal for its Orbital Reef station received technical and business scores of white in the initial analysis. The proposal won many technical strengths on its design and other aspects, including “the use of proven Amazon logistics approach, which increases likelihood of successful ground hardware management supporting crew and payload services.” However, some aspects, like the use of inflatable modules and single-person spacecraft, were deemed to pose “significant risks to meeting the proposed schedule.”

The company was credited for an “ambitious” business strategy and “significant level of private investment” in the initial period. However, it was criticized for seeking more funds from the CLD program than NASA said was available, a significant weakness that the company later corrected.

The Nanoracks proposal for its Starlab space station also received technical and business scores of white. It won strengths for technically mature designs and the incorporation of elements like a centrifuge. However, NASA considered its proposed schedule “ambitious” and believed the company overestimated the level of closure it could achieve in its life support system.

NASA said the proposal featured a strong business strategy and a “very significant” amount of private investment. However, it also cited a lack of financing details and “unrealistic revenue estimates.”

Northrop Grumman’s proposal received a technical score of green and a business score of yellow. The proposal had many technical strengths related to the maturity of its design and operations. However, NASA cited weaknesses about its ability to accommodate larger payloads and underestimating the amount of crew resupply services needed.

Its business plan was credited for an experienced management team and likelihood of meeting its schedule based on the use of mature technologies. However, NASA raised concerns about its marketing strategy, lack of experienced business development personnel and an “unsubstantiated” financing plan. The company increased its originally “very low” investment in the proposal later in its evaluation.

NASA elected to award Space Act Agreements to all three companies, finding that Blue Origin and Nanoracks were relatively similar in terms of business and technical development. Northrop Grumman was technically more mature than the other two but had greater business development risks. Selecting it, the agency concluded, “provides this portfolio with a more balanced risk spread for achieving at least one commercial LEO destination during the course of this project.”