Watchdog denies Blue Origin’s challenge to NASA’s lunar lander program


Blue Origin’s protest against NASA’s decision to pick just one company to build the country’s first human lunar lander in decades was denied by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the watchdog agency said Friday, also denying a similar protest from Dynetics. The decision keeps Blue Origin’s rival, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the sole winner of NASA’s lucrative Moon lander program and hands a loss to Jeff Bezos, whose space company waged a months-long fight to win the same funding.

In a formal protest filed in April, Bezos’ Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics had accused NASA of running afoul of contracting law when the agency shelved their proposals and gave Musk’s SpaceX a lone $2.9 billion contract to land a crew of humans on the Moon by 2024. NASA had said it could award up to two companies for the contract, but never committed to that number, and went with SpaceX’s Starship proposal. The GAO found that NASA “reserved the right to make multiple awards, a single award, or no award at all.”

Musk responded to the news by tweeting “GAO” with a flexing bicep emoji.

GAO

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2021

In picking only SpaceX, NASA said it did what it could with the short funding it had from Congress, which gave NASA a quarter of the roughly $3 billion it requested for its astronaut Moon lander program. In its protest, Blue Origin said NASA should’ve called off the program or retooled it when the agency realized it wouldn’t have had enough money to fund two contractors. But the GAO rejected that argument, saying “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.”

Blue Origin and Dynetics’ loss at the GAO lifts the three-month procedural hold on SpaceX’s contract, which was put in place as the GAO adjudicated Blue Origin’s protest. It also resumes a core function of NASA’s fast-paced Artemis program, which calls for landing a crew of astronauts on the Moon by 2024, with several crewed missions after that. NASA has said it plans to open up future lunar transportation contract programs that other companies, including those who lost to SpaceX, can compete for. But Blue Origin has said that would only give SpaceX an unfair advantage over other potential bidders for those future awards.

“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,” a Blue Origin spokesperson said in a statement. If it decides to, the company could bring its grievances to the US Court of Federal Claims, the only other legal arena for bid disputes. “We’ll continue to advocate for two immediate providers as we believe it is the right solution... 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.”

Watchdog denies Blue Origin’s challenge to NASA’s lunar lander program

Blue Origin’s $6 billion proposal for the NASA program was for its Blue Moon lunar lander, which the company is building with a “National Team” of subcontractors that includes Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. On Monday, Bezos personally offered to discount the cost of the Blue Moon lander by up to $2 billion. He said in an open letter to NASA administrator Bill Nelson that such an offer would “bridge the HLS budgetary funding shortfall” and “get the program back on track right now.”

That offer still stands, a Blue Origin spokesperson said, adding: “We’re talking with NASA about next steps and appropriate actions.”

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