Blue Origin has filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office protesting NASA awarding the first Human Landing System (HLS) contract to SpaceX arguing the process was “flawed.”
The $2,9 billion HLS contract was awarded to SpaceX on April 16 to develop a crew-rated lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis III mission, which hopes to carry the next man and first woman to the Moon by 2024. In parallel with the award, NASA announced that it planned to seek proposals for lunar landers to fulfil the requirements of subsequent Artemis missions.
In its protest filed with the GAO on April 26, Blue Origin laid out several charges against NASA’s decision to award the HLS contract to SpaceX.
The Blue-Origin-led National Team is made up of a number of industry stalwarts including Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. According to the Blue Origin protest, the National Team bid was for $5,99 billion, more than double SpaceX’s bid.
Despite the large difference, Blue Origin argue that they were not given a chance to revise their bid once NASA became aware that funding for the HLS program was likely to be less than a quarter of what the agency had requested, a fact that played a significant role in SpaceX’s selection.
“Blue Origin was plainly prejudiced by the Agency’s failure to communicate this change in requirements,” states the protest. “Blue Origin could have and would have taken several actions to revise its proposed approach, reduce its price to more closely align with funding available to the Agency, and/or propose schedule alternatives.”
In addition to being unable to revise its bid, the Blue Origin protest points to flawed technical evaluations that “unreasonably favored” the SpaceX proposal.
“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.”
Among the litany of other accusations, one of the stranger points of protest saw Blue Origin take aim at SpaceX’s use of a vertically integrated supply chain.
“This single award endangers domestic supply chains for space and negatively impacts jobs across the country, by placing NASA space exploration in the hands of one vertically integrated enterprise that manufactures virtually all its own components and obviates a broad-based nationwide supplier network.”
Considering that a human-rated lunar lander has not been produced in 50 years and the three teams that bid on the HLS contract primarily utilised staff already on the payroll, it is unclear what jobs specifically would be negatively affected by the award. This becomes an even more bizarre point of contention when you consider that NASA has already indicated that it would be seeking proposals for additional landers from Artemis IV onwards.
Although the Blue Origin protest is likely to make headlines over the coming weeks, the GAO only sustains between 13% to 15% of protests it receives. If the protest is one of the rare few to be allowed to proceed, Blue Origin would still need to prove that their bid is in fact superior to the winning SpaceX proposal.