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Rocket Doc Notes for Week of July 25, 2021

Space News and Good News

I’ve enclosed the following article from the Geek Wire. My comments are in parenthesis.

Jeff Bezos offers to cover $2B more in costs as part of NASA lunar lander deal

BY ALAN BOYLE on July 26, 2021 at 10:04 am

Blue Origin Team Lander

In an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Jeff Bezos says his Blue Origin space venture will waive up to $2 billion in payments as part of a deal to build a second lunar landing system for NASA’s use.

The offer comes just days after Bezos rode Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket ship to the edge of space and back. It appears aimed at addressing one of the factors that led NASA in April to issue only one contract for a landing system capable of carrying astronauts to the moon’s surface by as early as 2024. That $2.9 billion contract went to SpaceX, in part because NASA said Congress didn’t award enough money for two providers.

NASA also gave its highest technical rating to SpaceX’s proposal to use a version of its Starship launch system, which is currently under development.

Blue Origin and its industry partners ⁠— including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper ⁠— bid $6 billion to design and build a competing landing system. After SpaceX won the award, Blue Origin’s team and Dynetics, the third competitor for a NASA contract, filed protests with the Government Accountability Office. The GAO is due to rule on those protests by Aug. 4.

In his letter to Nelson, Bezos revisits the issues laid out in Blue Origin’s protest and complains that NASA “chose to confer a multi-year, multibillion-dollar head start to SpaceX” in the Human Landing System competition.

He noted that NASA gave SpaceX a chance to revise its bid to fit NASA’s financial needs, and that Blue Origin wasn’t given a similar opportunity.

“That was a mistake, it was unusual, and it was a missed opportunity,” Bezos wrote. “But it is not too late to remedy.”

Bezos then offered to waive all payments in the 2021-2023 fiscal years, up to $2 billion, “to get the program back on track right now.” He said that would be in addition to the $1 billion in corporate contributions that was previously pledged.

Blue Origin would also develop and launch a pathfinder version of its lunar descent element into low Earth orbit at its own cost, “to further retire development and schedule risks,” Bezos said. And it would do the work on a fixed-price basis, shielding NASA from cost overruns.

In an indirect reference to his status as the world’s richest individual, Bezos said he was “honored to offer these contributions and am grateful to be in a financial position to do so.” (For what it’s worth, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is currently the world’s second-richest individual.)

“If NASA has different ideas about what would best facilitate getting back to true competition now, we are ready and willing to discuss them,” Bezos wrote.

He noted there was “strong, bipartisan congressional support for a second lander and for the Artemis Program in general.” Artemis is NASA’s program aimed at getting astronauts on the moon by 2024, although that deadline’s likely to be extended.

Some prominent members in Congress — including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. — have said a second commercial system for crewed lunar landings is needed to ensure competition and redundancy.

NASA has benefited from similar redundancies in the International Space Station program: SpaceX and Northrop Grumman provide cargo resupply, while SpaceX and Boeing have contracts for transporting crew.

Congress is considering Cantwell’s proposal to authorize $10 billion for NASA’s Human Landing System program, in order to cover the cost of a second lander.

In part to address congressional concerns, NASA has laid out plans to follow up on SpaceX’s sole-source contract for the first lunar landing with a new competition. That process would start out with a solicitation called Appendix N and continue with a program known as Lunar Exploration Transportation Services, or LETS.

In his letter, Bezos said that approach “won’t create true competition, it is unfunded, and it provides a multi-year head start to the one funded, single-source supplier.”

We’ve reached out to NASA and SpaceX for comment and will update this report with any response.

In a tweet, former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said she was “rarely speechless, but I’m blown away by this offer.” “I don’t know about its legality but offering $2B+ to develop a competitive lander can’t be ignored,” Garver wrote. “Sure, it is unconventional, but hasn’t everyone (including Elon) been saying Jeff needs to take more of a personal interest?”

Garver said Blue Origin’s offer should apply to a follow-up competition like LETS — and advised against reopening the original selection process in which SpaceX won out. “If Congress tried, it would overturn procurement laws and set a precedent that all ‘losers’ could derail awards by making a better offer after the fact,” she tweeted. “What I like is the long-term potential for another competitor … like Boeing in [NASA’s commercial crew program].”

I agree with my friend Lori Garver. This offer is unprecedented, but the lunar competition is at the point where it is “Go Big or Go Home”. If Bezos doesn’t get in the mix now Musk will hold an unsurmountable lead in future lunar commercial space development. Despite the lack of competition I view this possible development as very favorable to our shared future.

As of today, July 30th, it was announced that the Bezos offer, and lawsuit, have been rejected and the Space-X procurement will go on as accepted. I have participated in dozens of bids to NASA and their decision in this case makes good sense. One offeror gave them what they needed plus some extras for the money they had available. The other bidders gave them a longer development time for twice the money they had available and would only meet minimum requirements. Which would you pick? The noise about multiple awards to ensure success is just that, noise.

I still encourage Mr. Bezos to invest in space development but maybe target Low Earth Orbit (LEO) where there are myriad investment opportunities with ample payback.

Good News

There has been an avalanche of bad news lately what with the Delta Variant of Covid, wildfires, endless homelessness, and increased shootings in all parts of our towns. I thought it was time to talk about what’s going right and how our future looks brighter than you thought.

Fantastic News on the Global Warming Problem

We’ll start off today with a promising new form of battery technology.

I’ve been tracking an early-stage company called Form Energy for about a month now. It turns out Form Energy is working on a brand-new type of battery. It’s called an “iron-air” battery, and it is completely unique from anything that’s been developed before.

The battery itself is made up of millions of very small iron pellets. And it employs a membrane and pressurization technology that allows the battery to “breathe in and out”, taking in air and breathing out oxygen.

As we know, iron converts to rust when it is exposed to oxygen. And that’s exactly what happens using the input electrical current when the battery “breathes in.” This effectively charges the battery, allowing it to store energy.

Then, when the battery “breathes out” oxygen, the electrical current generated converts the rust back into iron. This effectively discharges the battery, expending the stored energy.

The key here is that this approach allows iron to be used for long-term energy storage. And unlike the rare Earth metals that go into lithium-ion batteries, iron is abundant and cheap.

Obviously, this makes the iron-air battery cheaper to produce than its lithium-ion counterpart. And when it comes to mass production, the supply chain would be reliable and secure – unlike lithium-ion supply chains.

Form Energy believes that its iron-air batteries will reduce the cost of long-term energy storage to $6 per kilowatt-hour. For comparison, lithium-ion batteries enable energy storage at $50 – $80 per kilowatt-hour. This represents a dramatic cost reduction between of 88% and 93%.

That said, iron is a heavy metal. These batteries will be much heavier compared to lithium-ion batteries. And that means lithium batteries will still be ideal for electric vehicles (EVs) and other applications where a lightweight battery is needed.

However, iron-air batteries could prove superior for industrial energy storage applications. If we think about solar and wind farms, for example, iron-air batteries could provide similar performance to lithium batteries at a drastically lower-cost point. That would make them a no-brainer.

So, Form Energy is absolutely a company we need to be aware of. It expects to deploy the first one-megawatt iron-air battery by 2023. And I would not be at all surprised if we see the company go public within the next 12–18 months. This would be a significant step in reducing the burning fossil fuels to generate electricity because it would allow us to rely on the low-cost windmills and solar panels for prime power plus battery charging and use the very low-cost iron-air batteries for standby power.

The competition for iron-air batteries is the Ammonia generation system I discussed on May 23, 2021. Both systems would solve the problem, and both are being developed commercially. The iron-air battery is further behind in development but should be significantly lower in cost. The NHHHF ammonia generator expects to have demonstration units operating this year but still needs low-cost ammonia fuel cells developed to complete the application for standby power, plus cars and trucks.

Together these present significant near-term technological breakthroughs that should really impact global warming. We just need to wait and watch which system wins out.

Fusion Energy Update

Helion Energy, a local firm in Redmond, Washington has just broken ground on a 50-megawatt prototype fusion reactor. This prototype reactor will use D-He3 as fuel and is the result of eight years of testing funded by NASA, ARPA, the DOE and private investment. In pursuit of a commercially viable model of this reaction, the company has smashed through a few critical milestones since its 2013 founding. Notably, it successfully demonstrated the ability to recover energy from its fusion system with 95% efficiency, generating a self-sustaining production cycle with helium-3 fuel. But more recently, Helion successfully achieved plasma temperatures of 180 million °F (100 million °C) with the sixth prototype of the fusion device, dubbed Trenta.

The goal for Helion and every other fusion power hopeful company is to create a system that generates more energy than is needed to operate it. This objective will take a central role at Helion's new facility in Everett, Washington, where up to 150 jobs will be created. "At this facility, Helion will close in on its goal of breaking the fusion barrier and pushing the world towards the end of the fossil fuel era," said CEO and Founder of Helion Energy, David Kirtley. I should point out that David Kirtley and several other senior members of the team were/are University of Washington faculty and that I have worked with them in the past. I believe they can pull this off.

Helion’s commercial strategy is to build fusion reactors in Washington, with capacity of about 50 megawatts, and deploy them at industrial facilities. Helion Energy’s strategy is to generate revenue based on a royalty model of electricity produced with projected electricity prices of 40–60 $/MWhr (4 to 6 cents per kwh). Penetration of the new capacity market is estimated at 20% of market growth (2.5%) per annum eventually reaching 50% of new power generation worldwide – $52 B/yr. Gradual displacement of existing supplies enables continued growth to 20% of world electrical generation after 20 years with a net return of over $300 billion. This is definitely a major player in the goal to reduce global warming.

How the proposed fusion engine works is explained in the figure below.

Good News on the Political Front

No, I’m not kidding. The good news is that we have State and Local elections over the next two months and the electorate is becoming incensed over the homeless situation, the shootings every night, and the “catch and release” policies with the current judicial system. We just had an armed robbery at the University Shopping Center close by our home. The local politicians blame it all on a failure of gun control, but I suspect that most voters blame the problem on the defunding of our police reducing the ranks and the tendencies of current officers not to go out a limb in apprehending offenders who will be out of jail tomorrow anyway.

I see the local government system as starting to fail and that failure is becoming very obvious. This gives us voters an opportunity to “fix” things and there seems to be a wide spectrum of candidates available. They all have a plan but we’ll see how much legislation results.

Homelessness is a different but related problem. I have read numerous surveys which puts the percentage of homeless who suffer mental issues and drug dependency at 60% to 70%. These people need to be constrained and rehabilitated. That has been done successfully in Denmark and Norway, but we are not Demark and Norway. Putting them in small houses or hotel rooms does nothing to “fix” their underlying problem. Until we do that, we are just wasting our money and their lives. The other 30% to 40% will benefit from more stable living conditions but dumping them in a hotel with no help for finding jobs, connecting with family, and psychological support is probably another waste of money. What we need is a “tough love” policy that temporarily constrains the freedom of the homeless and gives them solid help. Unfortunately, I don’t think it can happen in most of America, but maybe it can out here on the” Left” coast.

Thanks for Reading,

Dana Andrews

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