Shutdown to delay first element of NASA’s lunar Gateway

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WASHINGTON — A five-week partial government shutdown could delay the launch of the first element of NASA’s orbiting lunar outpost by as much as three months.

In a procurement notice filed Feb. 26, NASA notified companies bidding on the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) module for the lunar Gateway that the start of the contract for this module has been delayed because the agency stopped work reviewing the proposals during the 35-day shutdown in December and January that idled most of NASA. NASA, which had anticipated awarding contracts in March, now expects starting work by the end of May.

That delay will have a domino effect on the overall PPE project, including when the module will be launched. NASA stated in the procurement filing that it expects “a corresponding shift in the target launch date from September 2022 to no later than December 31, 2022.”

NASA issued the broad agency announcement (BAA) for the PPE in September, with proposals due to NASA in mid-November. NASA plans to award one or more contracts to companies to build and test the module, which ultimately will provide power and electric propulsion for the Gateway in lunar orbit.

NASA took a different approach to the PPE that a standard contract. 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.

NASA has encouraged companies to make use of existing commercial satellite buses and related technologies for the PPE by avoiding requirements so specific that it forces companies to develop a customized, and more expensive, spacecraft.

“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,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, during a roundtable with reporters at NASA Headquarters Feb. 14.

In return, the companies get access to high-power electric propulsion technology that NASA has developed, he said, “to put on their next-generation satellite buses.”

During that roundtable, Gerstenmaier didn’t give any indication of a potential delay in the selection of the winning PPE proposals. “We’ll make selections in a little bit,” he said then, adding that he couldn’t discuss it in more details because of the “blackout” during the procurement process.

A delay of up to three months because of a five-week shutdown is not necessarily surprising. NASA officials, including Administrator Jim Bridenstine, warned after the shutdown ended that ramping up work after the shutdown can take longer than the shutdown itself because of issues such as the need to hire or reassign new people who left during the shutdown, particularly among contractors.

“It is not a one-for-one delay,” Bridenstine said at a Jan. 29 NASA town hall to discuss the effects of the shutdown. “One day of shutdown does not equal one day of getting back into business.”