NASA selects Maxar to build first Gateway element


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 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 draught. 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.

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.

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.

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