Earlier this month, NASA selected SpaceX’s proposal for a lunar lander that will land astronauts on the Moon as part of the Artemis Program. Now competitor Blue Origin is appealing that decision.
NASA had originally intended to select two of the three companies that had proposed a design for its Human Landing System (HLS). Dynetics was the third. However, budget constraints forced NASA to down-select to only one company and SpaceX’s proposal was the least expensive at only $2.89 billion.
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith told the New York Times that NASA erred in its technical evaluations, ignoring advantages in the Blue Origin lander and downplaying SpaceX’s technical challenges. The latter may have been a reference to SpaceX’s issues with developing the Starship rocket, of which its proposed lunar lander appears to be a derivative.
“They’re generally quite good at acquisition, especially its flagship missions like returning America to the surface of the moon. We felt that these errors needed to be addressed and remedied,” Smith told the New York Times.
Prototypes of the Starship rocket have exploded enough times to attract unwelcome attention from the FAA, which caused delays in the testing schedule. Official statements from SpaceX indicate that it has made attempts to fix issues with the Raptor engines used by the prototypes for the SN15 prototype, which is expected to undergo its first high-altitude test soon.
In a typical tweet, Elon Musk was quick to fire back at Blue Origin in a reply to the New York Times piece:
SpaceX has sent thousands of satellites into orbit, including about 1,400 of its own Starlink satellites with more being launched every couple of weeks. It has also successfully sent crews to the International Space Station on its Crew Dragon, including its recent launch of Crew-2, which docked to the International Space Station just last Saturday.
The Crew-2 mission is reusing the spacecraft that had been used by Demo-2 and is expected to return to Earth’s surface in six months. Crew-1 will return as early as Wednesday. Until then, the International Space Station is hosting a record 11 astronauts representing the United States, Russia, Japan, and the European Space Agency.
Meanwhile, Blue Origin has not yet sent anything to orbit although it continues to work on its New Shepard rocket. Due to the issues with its rockets, it plans to send the first “Project Kuiper” Internet satellites into orbit using the ULA Atlas V. It is interesting to note that Blue Origin backer Jeff Bezos has a long-standing rivalry with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, which may have been a factor in its preference for ULA rockets if it can’t use its own.
Blue Origin and Dynetics have each filed separate protests with the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Blue Origin’s filing was reportedly over 50 pages long. The Government Accountability Office’s website had this to say about its mission:
“GAO provides Congress, the heads of executive agencies, and the public with timely, fact-based, non-partisan information that can be used to improve government and save taxpayers billions of dollars. Our work is done at the request of congressional committees or subcommittees or is statutorily required by public laws or committee reports, per our Congressional Protocols.”
So on the face of it, Blue Origin’s complaint may not fly if SpaceX can save taxpayers money on hardware destined for use on space missions and still pass NASA’s highly detailed technical inspections. The demand for space launches is unlikely to go down anytime soon, but government organizations like the Department of Defense have decided to go with SpaceX’s reusable rocket stages to launch hardware like GPS satellites because the switch could save money.
NASA has previously selected SpaceX to launch components for the Lunar Gateway, which is expected to provide logistical support for astronauts on lunar landing missions. The Gateway will reside in lunar orbit and will include hardware built by longtime international partners. Canada will build an updated version of the “Canadarm” that it has previously provided for NASA’s Space Shuttle and the “Canadarm2” that it built for the International Space Station.
SpaceX has a contract with NASA and its contractors to launch the uncrewed Astronautics lunar lander and NASA’s VIPER rover. This mission will conduct effective scouting operations for crewed lunar landings and possible permanent bases on the lunar surface.
Although NASA acknowledged that it has received notification of the challenge that Blue Origins and Dynetics filed with the GAO, a spokesperson declined to comment, citing pending litigation.