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An artist’s conception shows Northrop Grumman’s habitation module, which is based on the design of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft. (Northrop Grumman Illustration)

NASA says it’s choosing Northrop Grumman to build the habitation module for its future moon-orbiting Gateway outpost, because it’s the only company that can do the job in time for a 2024 lunar landing.

In a procurement document released last week, the space agency said the other companies that were competing to build the Minimal Habitation Module as part of NASA’s NextSTEP program — Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NanoRacks and Sierra Nevada Corp. — couldn’t have their hardware ready in time to meet the deadline set by the Trump administration.

“NGIS [Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, formerly Orbital ATK] was the only NextSTEP-2 contractor with a module design and the production and tooling resources capable of meeting the 2024 deadline,” NASA said.

For that reason, NASA is going with a sole-source process to award the contract for the habitation module, short-circuiting the full and open NextSTEP-2 Appendix A competition. As long as Northrop Grumman submits an acceptable proposal with a price tag that’s “fair and reasonable,” NASA will give its go-ahead.

In documents submitted during earlier phases of the competition, Northrop Grumman proposed outfitting a variant of its Cygnus cargo carrier for habitation purposes.

Among the advantages: The Cygnus has been in use for space station resupply since 2013, so there’s already production capability; Northrop Grumman has already done the design work for upgrades including new docking ports and radiators; and the module is well-suited to fit inside the fairings of commercial launch vehicles.

As its name suggests, the Minimal Habitation Module is meant to be the Gateway’s scaled-down stopping point for astronauts on their way to the lunar surface.

In order to be ready to receive company in 2024, the module has to be launched in late 2023 and transferred to the Gateway in lunar orbit by early 2024, NASA said. And to hit that schedule, the module would have to be ready for pre-launch processing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center by mid-2023. That means the time for design, review, assembly and testing will have to be compressed, NASA said.

NASA said stopping the competition now would also save money. About $87 million has already been spent on earlier phases of the habitation module study, including the development of ground-based prototypes. Northrop Grumman alone has received more than $18 million for its development work to date, NASA said.

The procurement document included an estimate for how much would be spent on the modified Cygnus habitat over the next five years, plus two one-year options for further checkout of the module’s systems. That figure was redacted in the publicly released version of the report, however.

For what it’s worth, there’s a chance that one of the other companies in the NextSTEP A competition might contest the sole-source award.

In addition to the Minimal Habitation Module, the Gateway needs a Power and Propulsion Element that would also provide communication capability for the outpost. In May, NASA awarded Maxar Technologies a contract worth up to $375 million to build that element and get it launched by late 2022. Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, is one of Maxar’s partners.

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