Spaceflight company Blue Origin filed a protest with the federal government Monday, challenging what it says is the Air Force's "flawed strategy" of seeking contractors for national security spacecraft launches.
In its "pre-award protest" submitted to the Government Accountability Office, Blue Origin said the branch's request for proposal, or RFP, for upcoming missions is ambiguous and impossible to accurately respond to. Details of the protest were provided to News 6 partner Florida Today by the company.
"The Air Force is pursuing a flawed acquisition strategy for the National Security Space Launch program," Blue Origin said. "Unless the Air Force changes its approach, this procurement will perpetuate a market duopoly in national security space launch well into the next decade, causing higher launch prices, less assured access to space, and a missed opportunity to expand our national security interests and bolster U.S. leadership in space."
The protest directly targets the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center's Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement, which was announced in May. The effort, developed in partnership with the National Reconnaissance Office, aims to find two contractors that would launch national security payloads that could range from experimental, high-tech spacecraft to reconnaissance satellites.
If Blue Origin – which did submit its own proposal despite the protest – is selected, these payloads would likely fly on New Glenn, a massive rocket that will be built at Kennedy Space Center's Exploration Park and transported to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 36 for liftoff. The first phase of the company's campus is already complete and construction is underway to build out the second half.
According to a copy of the protest obtained by Florida Today, the ordering period for the launches would run from 2020 to 2024 and ultimately would select two contractors for flights beginning in 2026.
"The most recent market research, however, indicates the total global addressable space launch market, including NSSL launches, could support three or even four U.S. launch companies," the protest reads. "Even the Agency’s own LSP source selection support contractor – the Aerospace Corporation – predicts that the space launch market has significant potential to suffer from a launch capacity shortfall because U.S. and foreign government launches will require most of the available launch capacity."
In its protest, Blue Origin said the second phase:
- Is ambiguous and unclear with its selection criteria and doesn't provide transparency between competitor bids. The company also said the government's technical requirements are "too vague to accurately price."
- Discriminates against new competitors and allows for a backup vehicle solution that could tip the scales in favor of the Russian-built RD-180 engine, which is flown by United Launch Alliance.
- And "unnecessarily restricts competition" with its five-year contracts to only two providers.
Moving forward, the GAO will have 100 days to review the protest and decide on whether to recommend corrective actions. The Air Force is then required to respond and detail whether or not it will implement the changes.
Blue Origin wasn't the only company with National Security Space Launch updates on Monday: Both United Launch Alliance and SpaceX announced they had submitted their proposals for the second phase. ULA said it submitted the first proposal for its upcoming Vulcan Centaur rocket, which will fly with Blue Origin's BE-4 engine, while SpaceX said its Falcon launch system – Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy – were submitted.