Friday, November 30, 2018

Procurement Contracts, Not Science or Engineering, Will Define the Next Generation of Robotics and Planetary Rovers

          By Henry Stewart

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has announced that nine US based companies are now eligible to bid on NASA delivery services to the lunar surface through a new Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, a series of fixed price procurement contracts NASA will begin issuing in 2019 which are intended to facilitate the planned US return to the Moon.

The new contracts will have more than a passing resemblance to the very successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) fixed priced contracts, which came out of a NASA program to coordinate the delivery of crew and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) by private companies.

Hawthorne CA based SpaceX used COTS and its follow-on programs to grow into the low-cost rocket launching powerhouse it is today.

As outlined in the November 29th, 2018 NASA press release, "NASA Announces New Partnerships for Commercial Lunar Payload Delivery Services," the nine companies selected for the program include:
  • Pittsburgh PA based Astrobotic Technology, a privately held firm founded in 2008 by Carnegie Mellon professor Red Whittaker and his associates, with the goal of winning the Google Lunar X Prize.
  • Cedar Park TX based Firefly Aerospace, a privately held firm that is also developing small and medium-sized launch vehicles for commercial launches to orbit.
  • Houston TX based Intuitive Machines, a privately held firm a company focused around building  autonomous system solutions for Earth and space.
  • NJ based Orbit Beyond, a mostly unknown US based company reportedly building spacecraft to send to the moon by 2020.
The move is part of US President Donald Trump’s Space Policy Directive, which calls for revisiting Moon exploration.

For Canada, the new procurement program is probably not a good thing. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA), using far more traditional procurement methodologies, has for years attempted to develop expertise in this area to sell on the international markets, but mostly failed.

And while some of the Canadian expertise developed will likely end up creating component parts for Moon Express (and maybe others), most won't.

The next generation of rovers and lander will end up being defined by their procurement contracts and commercial markets, not by their science and engineering expertise.

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer.

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