Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin is fighting NASA’s decision to award SpaceX $2.9 billion to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024. NASA’s Human Landing System program, which funded the development of three rival lunar lander prototypes (including Blue Origin’s), was expected to pick two of those landers in April. But NASA opted for just one — SpaceX’s Starship — because of short funding from Congress.
Blue Origin’s 175-page protest, filed with the Government Accountability Office less than two weeks after SpaceX won the contract, accuses NASA of misjudging several parts of its proposal for Blue Moon, the lunar lander it’s developing with a “National Team” of established space and defense contractors: Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Draper.
NASA announced its decision to pick SpaceX’s Starship rocket system on April 16th, citing the spacecraft’s proposed cost and cargo capacity as key reasons for beating both Blue Origin and Dynetics, the third company bidding for the contract. Under the contract, NASA said, Starship will fly two demonstration missions — one uncrewed test mission to the lunar surface, and another mission carrying humans around 2024.
“NASA has executed a flawed acquisition for the Human Landing System program and moved the goalposts at the last minute,” Blue Origin said in a statement released on Monday, calling NASA’s decision “high risk.”
“Their decision eliminates opportunities for competition, significantly narrows the supply base, and not only delays but also endangers America’s return to the Moon. Because of that, we’ve filed a protest with the GAO,” the statement read. NASA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the protest.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responded to the protest with a crude tweet: “Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol,” he said, apparently referring to the fact that Blue Origin hasn’t launched anything into orbit.
The lunar lander contract is the centerpiece of NASA’s Artemis program, the agency’s effort to put the first astronauts since Apollo back on the Moon and use the lunar surface as a springboard for future missions to Mars. Last year, Congress gave NASA $850 million of the $3.3 billion it requested to procure the lunar landers. NASA cited that funding shortfall as a reason that it only picked SpaceX’s Starship, instead of picking two companies, as was expected.
In its filing, Blue Origin claims NASA didn’t provide the company an opportunity to revise its proposal after learning about the short funding from Congress. The company also claimed NASA unfairly favored SpaceX and ignored technical challenges related to Starship, including the rocket system’s unproven technique to refuel itself in orbit.
“The Agency unreasonably favored SpaceX’s evaluation by minimizing significant risks in SpaceX’s design and schedule, while maximizing the same or similar risks in Blue Origin’s proposal. Such an evaluation is unreasonable and prejudiced Blue Origin,” the filing read.
The GAO can act as a court for procurement disputes between companies and federal agencies. Reviewing protests like Blue Origin’s, the watchdog agency will choose to either reject or sustain them. If Blue Origin’s protest is sustained — which is rare — the GAO would issue a set of recommendations for NASA. It’s extremely rare for agencies to defy GAO recommendations.
In its protest, Blue Origin asked the GAO to recommend that NASA rescind its award to SpaceX, reissue the competition with a new statement that reflects the funding shortfall, and convene discussions with all bidders on the new process.
This isn’t Blue Origin’s first bid protest. In 2019, the company challenged the Air Force’s strategy to pick two of four bidding companies to launch the Pentagon’s satellites into space for the next several years. The GAO sustained part of that protest, but it didn’t hand Blue Origin the win it sought.