Bezos’ Blue Origin protests against NASA awarding an astronaut moon landing contract to Musk’s SpaceX

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk

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Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin filed a protest against NASA at the Government Accountability Office Monday, calling for the space agency to award a nearly $ 3 billion lunar lander contract to Elon Musk’s SpaceX earlier this month.

SpaceX received $ 2.89 billion for NASA’s Human Landing System program in a competition against Blue Origin and Leidos’ subsidiary Dynetics. The HLS program is focused on building a lunar lander that can transport astronauts to the surface of the moon as part of NASA’s Artemis missions. For HLS, SpaceX offered a variation of its Starship rocket, the prototype of which the company tested at its plant in Texas.

Previously, NASA was supposed to select two of the three teams to competitively build lunar landers, which makes SpaceX’s sole selection surprising given the agency’s previous goals for the program to remain a competition.

Blue Origin described the award as “flawed” in a statement to CNBC and said NASA “moved the goal posts at the last minute”.

“In NASA’s own words, it made a high-risk selection. Your decision eliminates competitive opportunities, severely restricts the supply base, and not only delays America’s return to the moon, but endangers it. That’s why we have at GAO Protested, “said Blue Origin.

Blue Origin announced that NASA has valued the company’s HLS proposal at $ 5.99 billion, roughly double that of SpaceX. The company argued in its protest filing that NASA’s cost to fund both proposals would have been under $ 9 billion – or near the agency’s spending on SpaceX and Boeing to develop competing astronaut pods under the Commercial Crew program .

“If two sources are not maintained … NASA’s selection decision poses a number of problems for the HLS program and puts all of NASA’s eggs in one basket,” Blue Origin wrote in the protest.

The New York Times first reported on Blue Origin’s GAO protest.

The Blue Origin protest

Blue Origin based its protest on five objections.

First, Bezos’ company said NASA failed to give SpaceX’s competitors an opportunity to “compete sensibly” after “agency requirements changed due to undisclosed perceived funding shortage” for the HLS program.

Second and third, Blue Origin said that NASA’s acquisition was “unreasonably” flawed, according to the agency’s acquisition rules and evaluation of the company’s proposal. Fourth, the company alleged that NASA rated SpaceX’s proposal “inappropriately and unevenly”. Finally, Blue Origin said that NASA’s evaluation of the proposals changed the weight of key criteria and made price “the most important factor due to perceived funding constraints.”

The company highlighted the work being done to develop its lunar lander, including an undisclosed amount of its own investment in the BE-7 rocket engine it was planning to use for the spacecraft.

“Blue Origin’s substantial commercial investment in the BE-7 engine program is direct evidence of the company’s commitment to lunar exploration,” the company wrote in the GAO protest.

NASA selection process

Starship’s SN10 prototype rocket is on the launchpad at the company’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

SpaceX

The space agency announced the SpaceX contract on April 16 with a source selection document written by Space Director Kathy Lueders, which set out NASA’s rationale for its decision.

NASA based its selection on three main factors: technical capability, price, and then management rating. SpaceX and Blue Origin both received “acceptable” technical ratings, with SpaceX’s price being “by far the lowest” and management rating “excellent” – while Blue Origin management and Dynetics were rated “very good”.

In particular, NASA’s selection committee said it found “two cases of proposed prepayments under Blue Origin’s proposal”.

“I agree with the assessment that these payments in connection with kickoff meetings contravene the instructions of the call and make Blue Origin’s proposal for an award inadmissible,” wrote Lueders.

NASA applied for $ 3.4 billion for the HLS program in fiscal 2021, but Congress only approved $ 850 million. In view of this unexpectedly low funding, Lueders admitted that selecting just one company proposal for the HLS program was “not the optimal result for NASA”, but rather complied with the agency’s acquisition rules.

Last week, Musk hailed NASA’s selection as a “great honor” and said the agency’s goal of landing astronauts on the moon by 2024 was “actually feasible.”

“It’s been almost half a century since humans were last on the moon. It’s too long, we have to go back there and have a permanent base on the moon – again like a large permanently manned base on the moon,” said Musk.

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