In the latest round of the fight over NASA’s award of the lunar lander contract to SpaceX, Blue Origin has filed a federal lawsuit against NASA. Blue Origin continues to claim that NASA made errors that gave SpaceX an unfair advantage.
“This bid protest challenges NASA’s unlawful and improper evaluation of proposals,” Blue Origin said in paperwork related to the lawsuit.
NASA had originally intended to choose two out of the three finalists’ proposals for the Human Landing System (HLS) but chose only SpaceX’s Starship-derived proposal. The space agency claimed budget shortfalls forced it to make a tough choice. SpaceX’s bid came in at about $2.9 billion, a couple of billion dollars less than Blue Origin’s bid.
Dynetics was the third aerospace company in the running to design and ultimately build the HLS. Both Dynetics and Blue Origin had filed complaints with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), but the GAO sided with NASA’s claim that SpaceX did an all-around better job of meeting its selection criteria.
This hasn’t stopped members of Congress from weighing in on the ongoing drama surrounding the HLS. The Senate approved an amendment to the U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act that could increase NASA’s funding by $10 billion to allow it to move forward with two proposals as originally planned. The amendment was introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-MI), who represents the state that Blue Origin has its headquarters in.
Blue Origin has also launched a public relations offensive against NASA and SpaceX in the form of critical infographics. The infographics called Starship an “immensely complex & high risk” approach that has never actually flown.
“There are an unprecedented number of technologies, developments, and operations that have never been done before for Starship to land on the Moon,” Blue Origin said.
There is evidence that SpaceX plans to conduct its planned orbital test of Starship as soon as possible, possibly within the next few weeks. Elon Musk has made comments implying that the main holdups are regulatory ones. A successful orbital test that concludes with the test rocket being brought back to land intact would be the best possible answer to Blue Origin’s criticisms.
SpaceX also has a contract with NASA to conduct an orbital refueling test of its Starship rocket. The ability to refuel in orbit is often regarded as an important component of sustainable space operations. The most efficient methods for refueling – including when, where, and how – has often debated in venues like the annual Mars Society conference.
Past designs for the Lunar Gateway included the addition of the capacity to refuel spacecraft in route to other destinations in the Solar System such as Mars. Some supporters of crewed Mars missions say that it would be more efficient to refuel return vehicles using local resources harvested on Mars.
All this wrangling between aerospace companies could cause yet another delay in NASA’s Artemis Program, which is already struggling with cost overruns and slow progress. The uncrewed first test flight for the SLS had originally been scheduled for 2016 but has been delayed multiple times and is unlikely to happen before the end of 2021. Elon Musk recently said that SpaceX could handle making the spacesuits for use on the lunar surface after NASA’s Inspector General said that the delivery of the spacesuits being manufactured for the Artemis Program could be delayed until 2025 at the earliest.
Based on these delays, Elon Musk recently said that SpaceX could get people on the Moon before 2024 even if NASA doesn’t pick up the tab. It already has a contract to send eight people around the Moon in 2023 with the dearMoon mission. Even if SpaceX doesn’t meet Musk’s typically ambitious schedule, it may get to the Moon before NASA does.
And Musk’s response to Blue Origin’s refusal to give up on the HLS? “The sad thing is that even if Santa Claus suddenly made their hardware real for free, the first thing you’d want to do is cancel it.”