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An artist’s conception shows the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element with its solar electric propulsion system in action. (Maxar / Business Wire Illustration)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine today announced that the first major component for a future mini-space station in lunar orbit will be provided by Maxar Technologies, formerly known as SSL.

“The contractor that will be building that element is … drum roll … Maxar,” Bridenstine said during a talk at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, south of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “Maxar is going to be building that for the United States of America.”

Colorado-based Maxar will build the Power and Propulsion Element, or PPE, which will house the 50-kilowatt solar electric propulsion system as well as the communications relay system for the Gateway space platform. “It will be the key component upon which we will build our lunar Gateway outpost, the cornerstone of NASA’s sustainable and reusable Artemis exploration architecture on and around the moon,” Bridenstine said in a NASA news release.

The Gateway is destined to be the staging point for astronauts heading down to the lunar surface by as early as 2024. To meet that five-year deadline, the Gateway will have only one other component by that time, known as the mini-habitation module. NASA and its international partners expect to add more modules in the years that follow, leading up to a “sustainable” lunar presence by 2028.

Today’s announcement comes after Maxar and four other companies — Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman’s Orbital ATK subsidiary and Sierra Nevada Corp. — conducted studies for NASA focusing on the technical issues surrounding the PPE. Maxar’s partners in the project include Draper as well as Blue Origin, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space venture.

Maxar’s vice president for regulatory / policy, Mike Gold, said during a teleconference that Blue Origin will be a “very helpful partner” for supporting the project’s human-rated activities. But he told reporters it’s too early to say whether Maxar would choose Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket as the PPE’s commercial launch vehicle. “We have not made a formal decision on that yet,” Gold said.

NASA said the firm-fixed price award to Maxar carries a maximum total value of $375 million. The contract begins with a 12-month base period of performance and is followed by a 26-month option, a 14-month option and two 12-month options.

The PPE’s launch mass is projected to amount to 5,000 kilograms (11,000 pounds), with propellant accounting for about half that mass. Spacecraft design is to be completed during the first year, followed by development milestones leading up to launch in late 2022.

There’d be an in-space flight demonstration period lasting as long as a year, during which time the spacecraft would be owned and operated by Maxar. After a successful demonstration, NASA would then have the option to acquire the PPE for use as the Gateway’s first element — just in time to get ready for the first crewed mission to the moon in 2024.

“We’re excited to demonstrate our newest technology on the Power and Propulsion Element. Solar electric propulsion is extremely efficient, making it perfect for the Gateway,” Mike Barrett, power and propulsion element project manager at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, said in a statement. “This system requires much less propellant than traditional chemical systems, which will allow the Gateway to move more mass around the moon, like a human landing system and large modules for living and working in orbit.”

Gold said he hoped the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element will be the “first of many PPEs” to go into service as commercial space exploration takes hold.

For his part, Bridenstine said he expects the commercial acquisition process established for the PPE to set a precedent for future elements of NASA’s lunar exploration program, which has been dubbed Artemis in a nod to the Apollo program of the 1960s and 1970s. (Artemis, the goddess of the moon, was Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.)

During the buildup to his drum roll, Bridenstine talked up the Artemis program, and particularly the promise of sending the first woman to the moon.

“Fifty years after Apollo, we go back to the moon, sustainably, with commercial partners, international partners. We utilize the resources of the moon, we prove the technology, we want to plan to take it to Mars. We do it with this very diverse and capable astronaut corps to inspire every American to see themselves in that role — and we name it after the twin sister of Apollo, Artemis,” Bridenstine told his audience at the Florida Institute of Technology.

“We, friends, in this room, are the Artemis generation,” he said. “You are part of the Artemis generation. We need to create a movement for the Artemis generation.”

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