Posted by: spacewritinguy | January 4, 2009

Review of NASA’s Altair RFP

Hello, space fans. It’s been awhile since I actually talked space here, so I thought I’d have a look at the draft request for proposal (RFP) that came out for NASA’s Altair Lunar Lander. Comments as I see ’em. Inputs welcome. If you’d like to know why I think myself qualified to do this sort of review, see my review of the Ares V RFP awhile back.

Starting with the synopsis….

The Altair Project Office is looking to build on the knowledge gained through the Broad Area Announcement (BAA) Lunar Lander Study Contracts. The goal of the BAA Lunar Lander Study Contracts was to obtain industry input on the government’s study philosophy, establish a study team capable of working together toward a common government led design, and develop alternative design concepts from a single set of requirements.

Obviously the BAA came out awhile ago. Must’ve missed that one (ah! here it is: Hm.

this contract shall provide the necessary resources to conduct NASA directed engineering tasks in support of evaluating vehicle conceptual designs, maturing the vehicle design, and developing the necessary products for System Requirements Review (SRR) and System Design Review (SDR).

Ah. So, like the Ares V RFP, this is for engineering work and studies, not building hardware. So I would expect a lower price tag. The Apollo Lunar Module (LM) cost around $1.5 billion in 1967 dollars to build, but that price included

Next I moved on to Section C, the Statement of Work (SOW).

Key management resources consist of a Senior System Engineer, a Contractor Project Manager, a Senior Project Integration Engineer and a Senior Vehicle Engineer. 

So: still a small contract. But there is this:

The contractor shall provide resources with the full breadth of disciplines required for the conceptual/preliminary design and milestone review product generation of a Lunar Lander.  Although contractors will be requested to assess requirements documents, NASA retains sole responsibility for their development and content. 

This is where the contractor proposes as many or as few people as they think will be needed to do the job. One could take the “impress them with your knowledge” approach and include everyone on the staff who’s touched a lunar-type program, or you could go for the “quality over quantity” approach and select only a few very smart, key players who could guide the effort. The government is usually looking to strike a balance between capability and price. Usually, but not always, price will win the day.

There will be multiple Altair Conceptual Design Contract (ACDC) contractors. 

Again, interesting. NASA is trying to maximize competition to produce the best inputs/design. However, one wonders how much work the agency has already done–do they already have a concept in mind? Given that there are already conceptual images of Altair on, one can only assume so.

Work areas include Project Management, Vehicle Engineering, Safety, Test & Verification, Technology Integration, Operations Integration, and Project Integration. Thus, the contractor is looking at a minimum of seven people, including a Senior System Engineer, plus support personnel for each of the subspecialties listed as well. The “secret sauce” for any services contractor is its mix of personnel and the labor rates it charges for each.

The list of the subspecialties (2.3.1-16) required just under vehicle engineering gives some idea of the scope involved in building a lunar lander. I do wonder a bit if a commercial RFP would look greatly different from a government one. For instance, if SpaceX were to get into the lunar lander business, how much different would their procurement and design process look from the government’s? I’m willing to bet their reporting requirements would be less, at any rate. Another problem that can arise during RFPs is when the contractor has to work within the government’s structure rather than proposing their own. On the one hand, you’re not playing by their rule (“thinking outside the box” is not nearly as welcome in government as it is in the private sector); but if you have a better way of doing something, should you not propose it? Yep, that’s a puzzler. I’d be curious to know what the RFP for the LM looked like. (Yeah, I’m a nerd, so what?)

Section 2.7, “Encouraging Innovation,” is interesting, as it offers an escalation process if bright ideas for improving the design are not approved at the integrated product team level. One presumes that if the bright idea is rejected at the Program Manager level, that the final answer is “T.S., buddy. We know better, and we’re not doing it your way.” At which point the disgruntled person with the bright idea would most likely drop it, quit, or go to NASAWatch and say how cocked up the program is because they didn’t accept said bright idea. I wonder what John Houbolt would have done if NASA hadn’t accepted lunar orbit rendezvous as the method for landing on the Moon and the internet had been around back then.

Section L, Instructions, Conditions, and Notices to Offerors. The government anticipates this work to be firm fixed price (FFP). Given the engineering-services nature of the contract at this point, that makes sense. The period of performance (POP) runs July 2009-August 2010, with Option 1 POP running October 2009 to July 2011 and Option 2 running March 2010 to January 2013. Must have some overlapping activities there.

The Technical Volume length is 60 pages, Management and Pricing Volume is 30 pages, Past Performance Volume is 20 pages. Sheesh, that’s a lot of writing. While multiple awards are expected, the tricky part for the offerors is deciding how much of their internal bright ideas to share with NASA. After all, the government could just take the bright ideas and run (that’s one reason companies don’t like responding to RFIs (requests for information). Sometimes the government is just on a fishing expedition to see what kinds of ideas they can get for free. In this case, however, I think NASA’s probably more interested in the people each company will bring to the table and how they’ll have them arrayed for battle.

Jeez, they want 7-10 hard copies of each volume! That’s a lot of paper!

Wow, some actual technical requests!

Provide a description of the approach you would follow in conducting the following representative trades and analyses.  This description of each shall include discussion of the analysis steps, design parameters to be analyzed, possible options to be investigated, and the types of expertise to be applied to properly evaluate the trade, in addition to specific discussions listed in the trade descriptions below.  Only the general approach to trade resolution is necessary, specific solutions are not expected: 


(1)                 Lander Scavenging – Discuss lander design features that would enable lander assets left behind on the lunar surface to be more conducive to re-use.  Specifically identify the features or components that would be targeted for investigation.


(2)                 Ascent Module / Airlock Configuration – The sortie mission habitation, transfer between pressurized and unpressurized environments, and “flight deck” functions may be combined in multiple configurations.  Discuss the process for identifying, and analyzing these options.


(3)                 Manufacturability and Operability – Discuss the steps needed to assess spacecraft design manufacturability and operational considerations that will enable more cost effective or streamlined spacecraft production and operations.  Include in your discussion design areas that may reduce life cycle costs in the areas of manufacturing and assembly, integration and testing, handling and transportation, and ground and flight operations.  Discuss how the results of this analysis could be incorporated into the  lander design.


(4)                 Landing Gear Design – Discuss the variables that apply to the design of the lander’s landing gear.


(5)                 CG Management Mitigation – Discuss the variables that contribute to the determination, perturbance, and control of the lander’s center of gravity during powered flight.

Otherwise, as expected, most of the “technical” section is asking about management and small business planning.

And that’s all I have time for at the moment. It will be interesting to see if NASA gets to award this before Obama takes office.

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