Blue Origin protest of NASA’s SpaceX moon contract denied

When NASA returns humans to the moon, SpaceX will build the vehicle to land the first woman and next man on the lunar surface. The US Government Accountability Office denied protests that were filed by Blue Origin and Dynetics on Friday.

The protests were filed by the companies in April after NASA selected SpaceX and awarded the company a $2.9 billion contract.

It’s another move on the chessboard in a years-long battle between rocket companies owned by the world’s two richest men: Jeff Bezos, who founded Blue Origin, and Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX.

While the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, had until August 4 to make the decision on the protests, they announced their response on Friday.

“In denying the protests, GAO first concluded that NASA did not violate procurement law or regulation when it decided to make only one award,” according to the GAO announcement.

“NASA’s announcement provided that the number of awards the agency would make was subject to the amount of funding available for the program,” according to the announcement. “In addition, the announcement reserved the right to make multiple awards, a single award, or no award at all. In reaching its award decision, NASA concluded that it only had sufficient funding for one contract award. GAO further concluded there was no requirement for NASA to engage in discussions, amend, or cancel the announcement as a result of the amount of funding available for the program. As a result, GAO denied the protest arguments that NASA acted improperly in making a single award to SpaceX.”

“Finally, GAO agreed with the protesters that in one limited instance NASA waived a requirement of the announcement for SpaceX. Despite this finding, the decision also concludes that the protesters could not establish any reasonable possibility of competitive prejudice arising from this limited discrepancy in the evaluation.”

The dispute centers on NASA’s Human Landing System, or HLS, program, which originally aimed to have at least two private-sector companies compete to build the spacecraft that will ferry astronauts to the lunar surface for the space agency’s Artemis moon landing missions. But NASA made the surprise announcement that it would move forward with SpaceX as the sole contractor for the project, citing costs as a primary reason for the decision.

Both Blue Origin and Dynetics argued in their complaints that NASA hadn’t properly evaluated their bids, pressing the space agency to reconsider. The government had 100 days to rule on whether the protests had merit.

Pushback against such contracting decisions is common, especially in the aerospace industry, where NASA and the US military are the primary customers for rocket builders and winning or losing awards can have a massive impact on a company’s bottom line.

“We stand firm in our belief that there were fundamental issues with NASA’s decision, but the GAO wasn’t able to address them due to their limited jurisdiction,” according to a Blue Origin spokesperson. “We’ll continue to advocate for two immediate providers as we believe it is the right solution. We’ve been encouraged by actions in Congress to add a second provider and appropriate additional resources to NASA’s pursuit to return Americans to the Moon.”

The company said it was also very encouraged by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson’s comments “over the past week that reaffirm NASA’s original intent to provide simultaneous competition. The Human Landing System program needs to have competition now instead of later — that’s the best solution for NASA and the best solution for our country.”

The space agency sees the GAO decision as a way to move forward with the SpaceX contract and returning humans to the moon. The decision enables NASA and SpaceX to “establish a timeline for the first crewed landing on the moon in more than 50 years,” according to NASA.

“NASA recognizes that sending American astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo program and establishing a long-term presence on the Moon is a priority for the Biden Administration and is imperative for maintaining American leadership in space,” according to the NASA statement.

“In the face of challenges during the last year, NASA and its partners have made significant achievements to advance Artemis, including a successful hot fire test for the Space Launch System rocket. An uncrewed flight of Artemis I is on track for this year and a crewed Artemis II mission is planned for 2023.

“NASA is moving forward with urgency, but astronaut safety is the priority and the agency will not sacrifice the safety of the crew in the steadfast pursuit of the goal to establish a long-term presence on the Moon.”

The agency also said its officials would soon provide an update on the future of the Artemis program, the human landing system and the proposed return to the moon and continue working with the Biden Administration, Congress and commercial partners to provide a sustainable approach to lunar exploration.

Blue Origin had proposed working as a “National Team” for the HLS program alongside frequent government contractors such as Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin to design a lunar lander specifically to service the space station, called Gateway, that NASA plans to put in orbit around the moon. Dynetics came in with a similar proposal.

SpaceX, however, proposed using its Starship, a gargantuan spaceship and rocket system that is currently in the early stages of development in South Texas. SpaceX’s primary goal for Starship is to take humans to Mars, but the company proposed using a modified version to service NASA’s Artemis moon program.

Though the vehicle will theoretically be capable of taking astronauts from Earth directly to the lunar surface, NASA plans to use the vehicle in tandem with its own rocket and spacecraft: the SLS, or Space Launch System, and Orion.

NASA officials said during a press call earlier this year that, under its current plan, SLS will carry astronauts to the moon’s orbit, and then the crew will transfer to the Gateway space station, and from there, SpaceX’s Starship will carry the astronauts to the moon’s surface.

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