A Closer Look at the Northrop Grumman Commercial Space Station – Parabolic Arc

Northrop Grumman’s free flyer business destination design builds on flight-proven elements to provide the building block for expanded capabilities including science, tourism, industrial experimentation, and infrastructure construction above and beyond. beyond the initial design. (Credits: Northrop Grumman)

NASA released the selection statement which outlines the space agency’s reasoning for awarding Nanoracks, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman a total of $415.6 million to develop plans for private space stations under the Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) program ). The facilities are designed to maintain a permanent American presence in Earth orbit when the International Space Station (ISS) is retired in 2030.

In this story, we are going to focus on the Northrop Grumman station. The project summary is drawn from publicly available information. Excerpts from the selection statement follow. Long paragraphs in the latter have been split to improve readability. Acronyms have been clarified for clarity.

Project summary

Partner: Dynetics
Crew: 4 (expanded to 8)
Lifetime: 15 years old
NASA funding: $125.6 million

The description: The free flyer trade destination design will provide the building block for expanded capabilities including science, tourism, industrial experimentation, and infrastructure construction beyond the initial design. Building on Northrop Grumman’s commercial spacecraft experience with the Cygnus spacecraft and Mission Expansion Vehicle (MEV) as well as the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) in production, the design uses an overlapping staged approach that minimizes upfront costs, provides revenue to compensate for later development, and allows later features to be added based on market needs.

NASA Trust Levels

Select statement excerpts
Signed by Phil McAlister. NASA Director of Human Spaceflight

Technical evaluation

For the technical approach evaluation, NG Space was assigned a confidence level of Green (high).

His important assets included the use of highly technically mature modules and systems, increasing the likelihood of meeting its proposed development schedule.

His strengths included increased access to Initial Operating Capability due to the ability to support 4 crew members; a modular architecture that allows growth potential for future demand; system design that optimizes maintainability; a comprehensive description of ground operations that increases confidence in mission success; the inclusion of a robotic arm, which increases external use and reduces the need for EVA for maintenance; a comprehensive training plan and ground support for the in-orbit crew and flight control team; a comprehensive risk management process and detailed technical risks; and a planned demonstration of docking capability prior to the first crewed mission, which helps reduce risk to docking operations.

His significant weaknesses included a lack of design description and apparent volume available to accommodate larger payload installations in the proposed CLD modules.

His weaknesses included underestimated crew service resupply estimates for its proposed CLD configuration; insufficient available power to meet its proposed Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) requirements; and come up with a design using small hatches that might not be able to accommodate larger payloads.

Business plan assessment

For the business plan assessment, NG Space was given a confidence level of Yellow (weak).

His important assets included the use of existing flight hardware, which increased the likelihood of meeting its proposed CLD schedule. Its strengths included an experienced management team; on-site development resources; and the proposed use of large, experienced suppliers.

His significant weaknesses included a weak marketing strategy and lack of experienced business development staff; offer very low private investment; an unsubstantiated financing plan; and no schedule provided after Preliminary Design Review (PDR).

His weaknesses included a minimum capability to accommodate non-NASA customer payloads at initial operational capability; and the unaddressed risk of dependence on habitation and logistics outpost (HALO).

Northrop Grumman Updates

NG Space has updated its Space Act Agreement (SAA) milestones to include two significant test and demonstration activities during the term of the SAA, driving its activity through Preliminary Design Review. Its SAA partially addressed the identified significant weakness of offering very low private investment by increasing NG Space’s contribution to development. All other identified weaknesses remained.


NG Space proposes to make less progress than Nanoracks and Blue Origin by progressing only to a preliminary design review design maturity level. However, it had the highest rated technical approach of the three proposals and is less risky than Nanoracks and Blue Origin. NG Space has demonstrated its rich spaceflight experience in both architecture and operational approaches. He married his experience with HALO and Cygnus to deliver a proposal that met or exceeded NASA goals with a high probability of successful execution.

NG Space’s CLD concept has a search volume limited to Initial Operational Capability, making it less likely that larger payloads and installations can be supported. It is also not clear that in the period between the launch of Element 1 and the launch of Element 2, there will be enough payload capacity available to meet the needs of NASA and commercial interests. . Given the technically mature design of the modules and the spaceflight experience of NG Space, it is highly likely that the proposed CLD can be completed on schedule.

On the business side, however, NG Space’s proposal achieved some of the CLD’s goals, but the PEP gave it a low probability of successful execution. Although it is likely to meet its schedule through the use of existing elements and development resources in place, it has not provided a credible plan to attract non-governmental clients or acquire significant commercial revenue in its first phase of operation.

Additionally, while NG Space increased its level of investment as a result of due diligence, it still had a relatively low level of non-NASA investment in its SAA and there was no clear financial plan. planned after the PDR. Additional business milestones have been added as a result of due diligence which I believe could address these issues when implementing SAA to focus on developing and expanding the LEO economy.

NG Space’s proposal is not as ambitious in scope as those of Blue Origin and Nanoracks, as it offers both lower payload and habitable volume than others and only seeks to achieve the PDR, which means its impact will boost the development of the LEO market. probably won’t be that big. But it was a technically sounder and less risky proposition than the others, giving this portfolio a more balanced risk spread to achieve at least one LEO trade destination during this project.

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