NASA’s selection of SpaceX’s Starship to become the first human landing system under the Artemis program has ruffled some feathers within the commercials space industry and the other companies that hoped to win the coveted contract aren’t going down without the last word.
SpaceX beat out two competing bids last week for its $2.9 billion contract to develop a human landing system under this first funding round. Elon Musk’s company will own and operate Starship on several demonstration missions with NASA support. The spaceship will launch on the Super Heavy booster, both are still under development.
NASA had narrowed down its selection process to SpaceX and two other bids.
Billionaire Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin partnered with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, to develop a lander vehicle known as Blue Moon launching on Blue Origin’s rocket the New Glenn and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.
Dynetics, a Leidos company, was the third option NASA was reviewing for possible selection. The company was developing the Dynetics Human Landing System, a single structure providing the ascent and descent capabilities that will launch on the ULA Vulcan launch system or NASA’s SLS.
On Monday, both Dynetics and the Blue Origin Federation filed a bid protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
“NASA has executed a flawed acquisition for the Human Landing System program and moved the goalposts at the last minute. In NASA’s own words, it has made a ‘high risk’ selection,” Blue Origin said in a statement. “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 human landing system is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program slated to return astronauts to the lunar surface beginning in 2024. The astronaut landing system will have to work with NASA’s Orion spacecraft and the Gateway station orbiting the moon to return humans there in the next few years.
According to the protest filed by Blue Origin, the company takes issue with NASA selecting only one company when it had originally indicated it would select two options for further development.
“In failing to maintain two sources for HLS Option A, NASA’s selection decision creates a number of issues for the HLS program and puts all of NASA’s eggs in one basket,” the complaint reads.
SpaceX’s Starship cost for the first two launches under this first selection round will cost $2.9 billion and had Blue Origin been selected its missions would cost $5.99 billion but Blue Origin argues NASA could have selected both bids for under $9 billion, which is half of what the agency requested from Congress to fund the Artemis program in 2020.
Congress ultimately appropriated $1.5 billion for the HLS across two fiscal years.
Blue Origin’s protest also highlights that NASA spent less than $9 billion for the Commercial Crew Program by selecting two contractors, SpaceX and Boeing, to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station and that model ultimately has worked for NASA.
“NASA’s multiple provider approach for Commercial Cargo and Crew already laid a successful roadmap for future agency procurements: this approach insulated both programs from delays in system development (including significant vehicle anomalies at different providers), financing, and budgets,” the Blue Origin protest reads. “In spite of this, NASA chose one provider for HLS, its most visible flagship program. The selection of SpaceX effectively makes deep space exploration a closed system that ultimately calls into question even SLS, Orion, and Gateway.”
The GAO received two protests Monday challenging the award by NASA of the Option A contract for the Human Landing System, or HLS under Broad Agency.
“The protests will be assigned a case number that will be viewable on our online docket. Both companies challenge the evaluation of the proposals by NASA, arguing essentially that if the proposals had been evaluated properly, their proposal would have been selected,” the GAO confirmed.
By statute, both protests must be resolved by Aug. 4.
Blue Origin has previously entered bid protests of government contracts in response to NASA selections, all of which have been rejected.