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

The GAO found NASA complied with contracting law in giving SpaceX a lone award

Blue Origin Founder Jeff Bezos Makes Announcement At Satellite 2019 Conference In DC Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Government Accountability Office squashed Blue Origin’s protest over NASA’s decision to pick a single lunar lander contractor, the agency said Friday, also denying a similar protest from Dynetics. The GAO’s 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 formal protests filed in April, Bezos’ Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics 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 build the country’s first human lunar lander in decades and land a crew 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.

In picking only SpaceX, NASA said it did what it could with the funding it had from Congress. Lawmakers 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. That’s good news for NASA’s fast-paced Artemis program, which still 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 SpaceX, as the sole winner of the first contract, would have 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,” the spokesperson said.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos gives an update on their progress and share their vision of going to space to benefit Earth. Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Blue Origin’s proposal for the NASA program was for its $6 billion 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.”

NASA said the GAO ruling in its favor allows the agency and SpaceX to come up with a timeline for landing humans on the Moon. It wasn’t immediately clear whether NASA still expects SpaceX to meet the 2024 deadline after the 95-day delay caused by the protest, but it said it’s “moving forward with urgency” while keeping safety during Starship’s development a priority.

The first two Artemis missions are still on track, NASA said. The first will be uncrewed. For the second Artemis mission, astronauts will take a trip around the Moon and back aboard the agency’s Orion capsule, without landing. The third mission will involve a landing with SpaceX’s Starship, which will ferry astronauts from Orion down to the lunar surface.

“As soon as possible, NASA will provide an update on the way ahead for Artemis, the human landing system, and humanity’s return to the Moon,” NASA said.

Update July 30th 5:35PM ET: Adds a statement from NASA and background on the agency’s first two Artemis missions