Just over a week after it lost out on a high-profile and lucrative contract to build the next spacecraft that would land astronauts on the moon, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin filed a protest over NASA’s decision, saying it was flawed.
NASA awarded Elon Musk’s SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to build the lunar lander, a huge victory that surprised many in the space industry. Blue Origin had vigorously pursued the contract, building what it called a “national team,” including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, to compete.
It won the largest award in the initial round and was seen by many as the team to beat for what NASA calls the Human Landing System. The selection of SpaceX as the only contract recipient was a huge blow to Blue Origin and an embarrassment for Bezos, who was personally involved in the project and has talked openly about his lifelong fascination with the moon. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
In a statement, the company said that “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. Their decision eliminates opportunities for competition, significantly narrows the supply base, and not only delays, but also endangers America’s return to the Moon.”
NASA said it had hoped to award two contract to ensure competition and redundancy in case one of the providers faltered. But it said it didn’t have the funding from Congress to pay for two contracts, and is pushing to return astronauts to the moon quickly for the first time since the last Apollo mission in 1972.
It said SpaceX’s contract was for the first lunar landing only and that there would be additional competitions for future missions. At his confirmation hearing last week, former senator Bill Nelson, President Joe Biden’s pick for NASA administrator, said he endorsed that approach.
“Competition is always good,” he said.
Blue Origin’s bid, the protest said, was $6 billion, or more than double SpaceX’s. Bob Smith, Blue Origin’s CEO, told the New York Times that he objected to the fact that NASA allowed SpaceX to update its payment schedule so that it fit “within NASA’s current budget.”
“We didn’t get a chance to revise and that’s fundamentally unfair,” Smith told the Times.
In the protest, filed with the Government Accountability Office, the company said NASA did not allow the competitors “to meaningfully compete for an award when the Agency’s requirements changed due to its undisclosed, perceived shortfall of funding for the multi-year program lifecycle.” It also alleged that NASA “changed the weight accorded to evaluation factors to make price (cost to the Government) the most important factor because of perceived funding limitations.”
NASA declined to comment “due to the pending litigation.”
In a statement to The Post, Musk, using Blue Origin’s initials, said: “The BO bid was just way too high. Double that of SpaceX and SpaceX has much more hardware progress.” He added that Bezos, who said this year that he would step down as CEO of Amazon, should be more involved in Blue Origin. “I think he needs to run BO full-time for it to be successful. Frankly, I hope he does.”
In making the award earlier this month, NASA officials hailed it as a watershed moment that would allow the space agency to put the first woman and the person of color on the moon. “As the first human lunar lander in 50 years, this innovative human landing system will be a hallmark in space exploration history,” Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s lunar lander program manager, said.
Bezos and Musk have battled over government resources before. In 2013, Blue Origin protested NASA’s decision to allow SpaceX to use launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Given the fact that Blue Origin didn’t have a rocket capable of getting to orbit or flying people, Musk said the protest was ridiculous, and Blue Origin lost the challenge.
And he didn’t think Blue Origin had much of a chance of creating a human-rated rocket any time soon. “I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct,” he told SpaceNews at the time.
SpaceX recently launched its third human spaceflight mission from 39A. Blue Origin recently said that New Glenn, the big orbital rocket it’s been working on for years, would be delayed another year.
In response to the news, Musk wrote on Twitter: “Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol.”
Bezos has long been enthralled by the moon and has said that watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon when he was 5 years old was “a seminal moment” for him.
Blue Origin has been pitching its landing system, known as Blue Moon, since 2017, and Bezos, often described as the world’s richest man, has said he would invest in it heavily himself. In 2019, Bezos said that the program is “so ambitious that it needs to be done with partners. This is the only way to get back to the moon fast. We’re not going back to the moon to visit. We’re going back to the moon to stay.”