Apollo, Lucy, and 50 years of progress — on the line

Apollo, Lucy, and 50 years of progress — on the line
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It’s been fifty years since mankind’s historic mission to the moon. On March 3, 1969, Apollo 9 launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Its purpose — to perform an engineering test of the lunar module — laid the groundwork for Apollo 11’s lunar landing on July 21, 1969. But more than that, the mission’s success charted a pathway of progress for years to come.

Half a century later, NASA is continuing to push the boundaries of human discovery. And Lucy its most recently announced mission, is one of NASA’s most ambitious projects to date. January 21, 2019, marked 1,000 days before the much-anticipated launch of the Lucy spacecraft. The groundbreaking 12-year mission, named after the famous fossil which helped decode the mysteries of human evolution, seeks to reveal the early history of our solar system. NASA’s Lucy spacecraft will be the first craft to explore the Trojan asteroids orbiting Jupiter.

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But Lucy is more than just an exploration of the unknown, it is a massive undertaking involving six separate asteroids, each with distinct orbits. What’s more, the mission deadlines are incredibly tight. In October 2021, Lucy must be ready to launch within a tight 20-day launch window. If Lucy were to miss its launch window, the mission could be delayed by decades. Given the exacting nature of the mission parameters, NASA sought assistance from the leading U.S. aerospace contractors which responded eagerly.

But one contractor has threatened to derail NASA’s Lucy mission entirely: SpaceX.

On January 31, NASA decided not to award the Lucy launch contract, valued at $148.3 million, to SpaceX. Its decision makes sense: Unlike most, the Lucy mission requires precision, and SpaceX is not exactly second to none when it comes to reliability.

NASA’s selection, however, did not sit well with SpaceX, which decided to play hardball and filed an official protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). In protesting the launch contract, SpaceX alleged that NASA’s selection was not in the best interest of the American taxpayer. NASA, in turn, issued a stop-work order to the Lucy mission while the decision is under review. Ironically, SpaceX’s protest will likely result in millions of wasted taxpayer dollars in delays and additional man-hours, offsetting any potential savings SpaceX claims it would provide.

SpaceX’s protest is more than a monetary inconvenience; it is an existential threat to the Lucy mission as a whole. The GAO’s review of the contract award is likely to take up to three months to complete. And with a mission like Lucy running on such a tight schedule, there are serious risk factors involved in a quarter-year delay. The time crunch could hinder the contractor’s ability to provide proper quality control, creating a potential for catastrophic error.

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Given the necessity of the mission’s 20-day launch window, SpaceX’s protest seriously threatens the Lucy mission. But if the GAO were to decide in favor of SpaceX, the most likely result would be the launch contract being re-opened for bidding.

SpaceX would again have the opportunity to compete  for the Lucy mission, but that bidding process could take as long as six months. Ultimately, the winner of the contract would be back to square one and nine months behind an already tight schedule. In that situation, the Lucy mission would most likely miss its 2021 launch date, losing an incredible opportunity in the process.

SpaceX’s decision to protest the Lucy contract is not only costly — estimates place the price tag of the protest somewhere between $75 to $100 million — but reckless as well. Elon Musk’s company has imperiled a mission that has the potential to advance mankind’s exploration of its origins. Much like the Apollo missions that preceded it 50 years ago, the Lucy mission grants America the chance to make unprecedented discoveries and gain insight into our world. We cannot allow this opportunity to go to waste.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).