Blue Origin sues NASA over selection of SpaceX for moon lander contract

GAO previously dismissed Blue Origin bid protest

Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper are working together to build a human moon lander system. A mockup of the lander arrived at Johnson Space Center in August 2020. (Image: Blue Origin)
Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper are working together to build a human moon lander system. A mockup of the lander arrived at Johnson Space Center in August 2020. (Image: Blue Origin) (WKMG 2020)

Blue Origin is escalating its fight over NASA’s decision to award SpaceX a multibillion-dollar lunar contract by filing a federal lawsuit challenging the decision, reports News 6 partner Florida Today.

The suit, filed with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims late last week, has triggered a series of reviews by NASA officials and marks the latest chapter in a dramatic scuffle between the two companies to secure high-profile contracts related to NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to put American astronauts back on the moon by the mid-2020s.

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“Blue Origin filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System,” the company confirmed in a statement. The company is owned and personally funded by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the world’s richest person. SpaceX was founded by fellow billionaire Elon Musk.

Earlier this year, SpaceX’s Starship platform was selected as the sole winner of the Human Lander System, or HLS, contract initially valued at $3 billion. It strictly focuses on the vehicle that will take NASA astronauts from lunar orbit down to the surface; the agency’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule will take them to lunar orbit first.

The decision took the space community by surprise, which was expecting Blue Origin’s bid for the lander to be part of the conversation. The Seattle-based company leads a group of companies – Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper – with a combined bid for the lander project under the banner of the “National Team.”

NASA initially indicated it would award contracts to two or more companies, but said budget constraints limited it to just one award.

“We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America,” Blue said in a statement.

Immediately after the decision to go with one provider, NASA defended its position and said budget shortfalls made it impossible to choose two companies for the contract. Officials said SpaceX’s bid, valued around $3 billion, was calculated at half the cost of Blue’s proposal. A third bid by Dynetics, meanwhile, was even higher than those two.

Blue was quick to challenge the decision and officially filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office, a government watchdog that reviewed the case and found that NASA had not broken any laws in choosing only SpaceX. The GAO also said NASA was mostly fair and balanced during its decision-making process, especially given the budget shortfalls rooted in Congress.

Blue’s lawsuit is the next step in the process to change the contract’s outcome.

“NASA officials are currently reviewing details of the case,” the agency said. “As soon as possible, the agency will provide an update on the way forward for returning to the Moon as quickly and as safely as possible under Artemis.”

The lawsuit comes as Blue increases its pressure on SpaceX’s Starship system, a two-stage vehicle built in Texas that features a massive Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage.

Over the last two weeks, for example, the company has created infographics saying Starship is “immensely complex and high-risk” due to its need to launch, refuel in orbit, then head to the moon. The infographic initially claimed it would take at least 16 launches to load up and boost a fully fueled Starship to the moon, but SpaceX chief Elon Musk saw the graphic and said it would take far fewer – likely around 10 or more.

SpaceX is expected to fly a slightly different version of Starship for lunar missions than the one now being tested in Texas. That vehicle is designed for deep-space voyages primarily to Mars, but SpaceX says it can accommodate a moon-landing mission with the right modifications.

Starship has flown several test flights in Texas, most of which have been successful in their test objectives. So far, one Starship has successfully launched and landed at the company’s facility named Starbase.

Bezos launched Blue Origin in 2000. Musk, one of the founders of PayPal, started SpaceX in 2002. Both see contracts like HLS as high-profile endorsements of their technologies, even if the amount of money involved is just a fraction of the total cost of development.

In a letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Bezos recently said he would be willing to help the agency bridge the funding gap by injecting $2 billion of his own money into the process and waive all payments over the next two fiscal years “to get the program back on track right now.”

“I am honored to offer these contributions and am grateful to be in a financial position to be able to do so,” Bezos said in his letter, which was provided to FLORIDA TODAY. “NASA veered from its original dual-source acquisition strategy due to perceived near-term budgetary issues, and this offer removes that obstacle.”

“The National Team stands ready. All NASA needs to do is take advantage of this offer and amend the Appendix H contract we hold today,” he said.